The Sun Never Sets on the Icelandic Empire

We are now taking a brief deviation from the usually scheduled chronological post order to talk about what I am doing today (and I promise I will get back to Israel eventually). Today, sadly, marks the last day of my gap year. I have moved out of my cozy apartment in Sarajevo, submitted my last few eBird checklists for Bosnia, and embarked back to the United States after 9 months of living abroad. However, it was impossible to resist one last hooray of freedom and travel and so, when I got booked with a 19 hour layover in Reykjavik, Iceland, I decided to make the absolute most of it. As my layover was overnight, I came up with the slight insane idea of pulling an allnighter, making full use of the Icelandic summer’s 24 hours of daylight to pack as much birding into my time in the country as possible. It was an ambitious plan, and at some point in the 19 hours I figured one of three things would give: my mind, my legs (much of the travel between birding sites would be done on foot), or my bank account (Iceland is one of the most expensive countries on earth). It would be the ultimate test of endurance– and sounded like a lot of fun.

When I landed at Keflavik Airport, the adrenaline was rushing, I was finally in Iceland! A country I had dreamed of birding for years! However, I first, of course, had to make a good luck offering to the Viking gods and so settled down to enjoy some lovely Icelandic ale.

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Celebrating Iceland’s entry to the World Cup with some limited edition beer

Thirst quenched, I flagged a taxi and headed to the northeastern tip of the Keflavik Peninsula and to the Garður Lighthouse. The salty tang of the sea welcomed my nostrils when I stepped out of the car as fulmars wheeled around me on stiff wingbeats and rafts of eiders, many with fuzzy ducklings, paddled about amongst the seaweed-coated rocks. The first two Western Palearctic lifers came quickly: some whimbrels by the roadside and the kittiwakes which occasionally jetted by, often coasting within feet of my head. It was only my second time laying eyes on these unusual gulls and I was pleased to have the opportunity to study their habits in more detail (hearing them vocalizing was particularly exciting).

The visibility was pretty close to nonexistent due to a massive fog bank which had settled in with my plane, however, I could just make out the shapes of gannets and a couple of Manx shearwaters at the outer limit of my vision. Disappointingly, the fog precluded any chance of my picking up any alcids offshore.

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Northern Fulmar

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Black-legged Kittiwake

Beginning to walk inland, the seabirds were promptly replaced by shorebirds, breeding amongst the moss, boulders, and grasses of the tundra. Common redshanks, European oystercatchers, and whimbrels screamed and hordes of Arctic terns busily ferried fish back and forth to their nests.

One of the fascinating things about Iceland is how the abundance and density of many species of birds is completely different than on the mainland. Rock pigeons are rather scarce for instance (and house sparrows completely nonexistent). What wowed me the most, was the huge number of Arctic terns. They were absolutely everywhere I went, even wheeling around downtown Reykjavik(!), and were by far the most common species of bird on the island. I’m used to encountering this species in low numbers in the US, and seeing such a huge number of this elegant species was jaw-dropping.

It was around this point that the cold started to get to me. In my rush to pack up my apartment (in classic fashion I only started packing the night before leaving), I had placed most of my cold weather clothing in inaccessible places and so was stuck in the Icelandic cold and wind armed only with 2 long-sleeved t-shirts and an Albanian national team track jacket. Despite this handicap, I was determined to persevere, and the excitement of being in Iceland turned out to be an effective tool in making me forget my discomfort.

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Common Redshank

Incredibly, as I was walking, I realized it was already 11 PM and still completely light outside! While the sky had darkened a bit, it had settled into a permanent shade of “dim;” essentially twilight had replaced night. The highlight of my walk came as a rock ptarmigan flushed up off the roadside and launched its chubby body across the tundra. It was only a couple minutes later that it clicked that it was my final world ptarmigan species! A less pleasant experience was when a territorial lesser black-backed gull projected vomited a pellet in my direction before repeatedly diving at my head.

Not long after midnight, the bird activity dropped substantially, with even the most hubristic of oystercatchers quieting down a bit, and I decided to move on and make the long, two hour walk away from Garður and back towards Keflavik where I hoped to make contact with a continuing white-winged scoter (an American vagrant).

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Whimbrel

Weird is an understatement for how it feels to walk down a road through the Icelandic tundra at 1 am while it’s completelt light outside. And yet that’s what I did as the mist turned to a light drizzle and my exhaustion from two days of travel began to kick in.

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Sea Thrift (Armeria maritima) growing along the roadside

While two parasitic jaegers cheered me a bit, I was still relieved when the lights and loud club music of Keflavik appeared before me.

While I was able to pick up a glaucous gull in the harbour (another WP lifer), the water was mostly still and quiet, save for the omnipresent fulmars which tacked back and forth across the bay. In other words: no scoter.

I was getting really tired at this point, and was feeling a bit down having dipped on a major vagrant, so I decided to cut my losses and return to the airport for a quick nap.

Refreshed and warmed, I picked up the 5 am bus headed for Reykjavik itself and began Stage 2 of my birding.

My first point of call was a city park built around a sizable pond. There I began to encounter redwings in large number, which seem here to fill the niche of “garden turdus” filled elsewhere in Europe by blackbirds. Over the course of the day, their almost haunting song would become a frequent background soundtrack. The main target at the park however was a continuing pink-footed goose mixed in with the resident greylags. It was easy enough to find and provided good looks– nice to finally connect with this overdue world lifer.

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Pink-footed Goose

A flagged taxi (using up the rest of my money) then took me to my final destination of the day: a small pond at a place known as Bakkatjörn. Two more WP life birds were ticked off in quick succession almost immediately on arrival in the form of a flyby common loon and an Iceland gull along the shore of the pond– sadly grounded by a broken wing.

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Common Redshank

The ponds were coated in ducks, mostly the omnipresent eiders, but gadwall, Eurasian wigeon, and tufted duck were all present as well. Offshore Manx shearwaters and more gannets were muddling about, and a couple of very distant unidentified alcids raced past. Most excitingly however was a beautiful alternate plumage red-throated loon– pressed right up against the shoreline. Shorebirds were another big highlight at this spot as a ruddy turnstone and four purple sandpipers worked the shoreline, snipe winnowed in the grasses, and two red-necked phalaropes spun frenetically in the water. Breeding was clearly in full force as fledgling mallard, gadwall, white wagtail, oystercatcher, and eiders were all present. Put together it was a really idyllic scene– and some excellent birding.

On my walk back to the bus station (using up the rest of my leg strength), I ran into a number of common redpolls which reminded me of just how few passerines I had seen in my time in Iceland– yet another fascinating quirk of this incredible country.

In the end, I managed in 19 hours to see 49 species, 13 of which were WP life birds. I flattered myself that this was really quite good, especially considering I lacked a car.

And that brings me to now; sitting at my gate in the airport, staring sleep deprivation in the face, and at the end of the incredible, Icelandic finale of an incredible gap year.

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Whooper Swan

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Fluffy Oystercatcher Chick

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The Road to the Flyway: Tel Aviv

I have the huge privilege this year to be participating in the Champions of the Flywaycompetition. For those who don’t know, this is a Big Day in southern Israel in the middle of migration. The goal is to raise money to help prevent bird poaching in the Mediterranean Basin, and the money raised this year is going to BirdLife Croatia and BirdLife Serbia (this is extra special for me since I currently live in the Balkans). I will be competing on the newly formed team the ABA-Leica Subadult Wheatears which is, as the name suggests, sponsored by the ABA and Leica Sports Optics. It is also the first ever Champions team composed of young birders from the ABA Area. The race is a couple weeks away but we’re still fundraising hard. If you’d like to donate, click here.

In part two of this series of posts, I reach the Middle East and bird Tel Aviv in search of an exotic starling.

 

After dealing for hours with ridiculously over the top Israeli airport security (and, as per usual, I was “randomly” selected for even more security processing), I landed at Ben Gurion Airport in Tel Aviv. The next day I would cross into Jordan, but for the time being, I had some birding targets in Tel Aviv. Specifically, I wanted to locate the Category C (exotic) population of vinous-breasted starling which calls the city home.

I headed by bus from my hostel to Park YaHarkon, a dash of green in the middle of the metropolis that is Tel Aviv, and also supposedly the best spot for starlings. Walking into the park I started to quickly tick lifers with graceful prinias singing and rose-ringed parakeets flying around and calling loudly and raucously.

Turns out Tel Aviv is somewhat like a Middle Eastern Miami– in that it’s loaded with exotics (among other reasons). In addition to the rose-ringeds, I also came across Egyptian geese, monk parakeets, and tons of common mynas.

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Rose-ringed Parakeet

The lake in the middle of the park featured an assorted mix of gulls, including my first lesser black-backed gulls of the year. There were also a fair number of spur-winged lapwings providing stellar views.

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Spur-winged Lapwing

It was while watching the lapwings that I noticed something different mixed in with a group of common myna. Sure enough, they were the sought after starlings– an easy enough tick.

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Vinous-breasted Starling

The rest of the afternoon I spent meandering around the park which provided shockingly good birding for a city park with marginal habitat. A flock of glossy ibis and numerous cattle egrets were my lifers for the Western Palearctic, and a whole suite of Middle Eastern specialties such as white-spectacled bulbul, pied kingfisher, and white-throated kingfisher were nice additions. It was a good introduction to the commoner bird life of the Levant.

In addition to these resident species, a couple migrants were present including good numbers of Eurasian hoopoes (easily one of the best looking Western Palearctic birds).

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Eurasian Hoopoe

Having pulled as many birds as I thought I could out of the park, I headed back to my hostel to eat and sleep before beginning my trip to Jordan the next day…

 

….To Be Continued

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The Road to the Flyway: Cyprus

I have the huge privilege this year to be participating in the Champions of the Flyway competition. For those who don’t know, this is a Big Day in southern Israel in the middle of migration. The goal is to raise money to help prevent bird poaching in the Mediterranean Basin, and the money raised this year is going to BirdLife Croatia and BirdLife Serbia (this is extra special for me since I currently live in the Balkans). I will be competing on the newly formed team the ABA-Leica Subadult Wheatears which is, as the name suggests, sponsored by the ABA and Leica Sports Optics. It is also the first ever Champions team composed of young birders from the ABA Area. The race is a couple weeks away but we’re still fundraising hard. If you’d like to donate, click here.

Even before I knew I would be doing Champions, I was planning on visiting the Middle East in March, so I stuck to those plans and headed out from Sarajevo to slowly work my way towards Israel, birding the whole way, until I would reach Eilat in time for the race. The first stop on my odyssey was the beautiful island of Cyprus.

I have been wanting to visit this island for a while, both for its fascinating history and its equally fascinating nature. I particularly wanted to see the two Cypriot breeding endemics: Cyprus warbler and Cyprus wheatear. I would be there too early for the wheatear unfortunately, but Cyprus warblers would be just starting to sing and mark out territories.

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I flew into the Larnaca airport on the Greek section of the island. As a brief piece of historical context, Cyprus is home both to an ethnic Greek and ethnic Turkish population. An increasingly hostile relationship between the two groups came to a head in 1974 when the Turkish military invaded and occupied the northern part of the island. Ethnic cleansing soon followed, and now the island is firmly divided by a UN buffer zone into Cyprus proper in the south (inhabited by Greeks) and the self-styled “Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus” in the north. On this trip, I opted to stick to the Greek side, planning on visiting the Turkish side on my way back to Bosnia.

After a long, cold Balkan winter, I was relieved to find warmth, flowers, and migrants waiting for me on Cyprus and I found the air above Larnaca filled with common swifts and barn swallows. Casual birding that evening produced a string of birds characteristic of the eastern Mediterranean: zitting cisticola, Sardinian warbler, black francolin, and spur-winged lapwing, and their ilk.

The birding the next day was even better. It started with huge numbers of singing black francolins. This was my first experience with francolins and I had always expected them to be big, obvious birds. Unfortunately, I learned the hard way that they are rather tough to see. They have a habit of sticking to thick brush and of refusing to flush, choosing to scuttle away instead. At one point I was within feet of a loudly singing bird and yet still failed to see it. Any frustrating with the francolins however was soon forgotten when I spotted a gull flying over. I guessed it was a yellow-legged but put my bins up just in case. Lo and behold, in the sights of my binoculars I could see that it was in fact a breeding plumaged Pallas’s gull!! While the bird didn’t stop and kept heading towards the ocean, I was overjoyed. This is an amazing looking species which I had also missed when I was in Bulgaria, making it extra special to see now.

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Pallas’s Gull

The spot I was birding at was a couple of sewage ponds just south of the Larnaca airport. After being stopped by a friendly Cypriot police officer wondering what I was doing with binoculars so close to the airfield, I reached the blind overlooking the ponds. Ducks of a couple different species coated the surface and spur-winged lapwings lurked on the shores. However the real highlight came in the form of a saker which strafed the duck rafts. In the brush surrounding the pools, I found lots of migrants including my first of year hoopoes as well as Isabelline wheatears and a single crisp, male Rüppell’s warbler.

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Greater Flamingos — All over the place in Cyprus

That evening I caught the bus to Ayia Napa, an extremely tacky tourist town in the east of Cyprus. While usually stuffed with drunken Brits and Russians, the town distinguishes itself by being right next to Cape Grecko National Forest Park — an excellent spot for Cyprus warbler.

From my hotel room balcony, I was pleasantly surprised to find a laughing dove, a bird which, although greatly expanding its range, is still a vagrant to Cyprus.

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Laughing Dove

The next morning I discovered Cape Grecko to be a Sylvia warbler paradise. The enigmatic and classy Cyprus warbler I was able to locate within 10 minutes of arrival and over the course of the morning I had many individuals singing away in the coastal scrubland. Spectacled and Sardinian warblers were present too, but the real prize was the no less than 7 Rüppell’s warblers I had over the course of the morning. An amazing number of this somewhat scarce migrant.

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Cyprus Warbler

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Rüppell’s Warbler

A number of other migrants were around too including my lifer red-rumped swallow. Crested lark, extremely common on Cyprus, were also in abundance, and were as confiding as ever.

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Crested Lark

Overall a fantastic morning of birding in some stunning scenery.

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Cape Grecko

 

A couple days later, after some history oriented exploration of Cyprus, I returned to the Larnaca airport, ready to keep heading south and to see what the Middle East would have in store for me.

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The Plight of the Red-breasted Goose

Halfway through a long day of birding on the northern coast of Bulgaria, I found myself eating lunch along the shores of Lake Durankulak, a picturesque birding spot adjacent to the town of the same name and nestled in the corner of Bulgaria between Romania and the Black Sea. I was joined by local birder and conservationist Pavel Simeonov who runs a birding lodge in the area and was my guide for the couple of days I was spending in Northeast Bulgaria. The restaurant we were eating in was mostly abandoned that afternoon, save for a group of three men who arrived halfway through our meal. This being the Balkans where everyone knows everyone else, Pavel waved them a friendly greeting and flagged one down to speak with him. Of the ensuing conversation I, lacking in the ability to speak Bulgarian, could understand nothing. What I could tell however was that it was less of a conversation and more, perhaps, of an argument.

After the man had eventually stood up to leave, Pavel chuckled and explained that he was a hunter. In particular he has a hunter of geese, including the globally threatened red-breasted goose.

The red-breasted goose is a diminutive and visually stunning species which breeds in the far northern tundra of Russia. In the breeding season, it is most notable for its penchant for nesting close to raptors, a clever strategy to deter raids by Arctic foxes. In the fall, the geese undergo an epic migration from their Siberian breeding grounds down to the steppes and plains of Eastern Europe. Historically, they’d cross the Russian taiga before resting and refueling in Kazakhstan. They’d then make their way across Kalmykia (the Russian steppes named for the Kalmyks, Europe’s only indigenous Buddhist population), before heading south to winter west of the Caspian Sea, namely in Azerbaijan, Iran, and even Iraq. As agricultural practices around the Caspian have shifted towards cotton production however, the geese have in turn shifted to where there is more food. They now, after leaving Kazakhstan, head due west across Kalmykia and spend their winters on the Black Sea coasts of Bulgaria, Romania, and Ukraine. Most winters, thousands descend upon Durankulak where they feast in the cereal fields that surround the lake. It was to see this population that I found myself eating lunch on the shores of the lake on that unseasonably warm February day.

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Red-breasted Goose Migration Path (Image by AEWA International Working Group for the Red-breasted Goose)

In his conversation with the hunter, Pavel had been trying to convince him that the local hunting association ought to ban shooting of all geese. In return, Pavel would tax the birders who hired him as a guide, and give the proceeds to the hunting association. While this might seem like a win-win, the hunter had been unimpressed and shrugged off the suggestion. When Pavel had pointed out that continuing to hunt at the current rate would leave no geese left, the hunter’s response was as disappointing as it was unsurprising: “the geese will never run out.”

Hunting of red-breasted geese is not a minor issue either. It’s increasingly being shown that it is one of the biggest threats to the long term survival of the species. While red-breasted geese are protected by law in Bulgaria, they are often accidentally killed by those hunting greater white-fronted geese, a game species the red-breasts usually mix with. Even when not directly killed, constant pressure and harrying of geese flocks by hunters discharging clouds of lead into the sky (often in violation of laws restricting from where you can hunt from) can lead to the failure of the birds to build up the proper fat stores needed for their arduous trip back to Siberia.

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Hunted Red-breasted Goose (Image by: Radoslav Moldovanski)

Even when they leave their wintering grounds the geese can’t catch a break–instead, they’re pursued by hunters across the whole path of their migration. When Pavel ran a project to radio-tag red-breasted geese in Bulgaria, the first two birds tagged were both shot by hunters in Kazakhstan, neither completing even one round-trip back to Durankulak. Over the course of the entire project, a substantial portion of the tagged birds were gunned down–mostly in Kazakhstan.

All of this is simply a repetition of the same script I have heard over and over during my time in the Balkans: ignorance for conservation issues leads to effectively a free-for-all by hunters, while the government is either too corrupted, lacking in the resources, or simply lacking in the willpower to do anything about it. The now-infamous dismissal from Serbian president Aleksander Vučić when confronted about excessive hunting of European turtle-doves always springs to mind when I hear about these kinds of issues. “I don’t care about these African doves [turtle-doves],” Vučić quipped to parliament. Unfortunately, it seems no one cares much about red-breasted geese either.

With lunch finished we headed out to properly see these geese ourselves. That morning we had seen a very distant flock of geese but I was unsatisfied with such poor views for such a beautiful species. After a while of plowing through deeply rutted and muddy tracks, we eventually located the small flock of birds from earlier.

Only seven red-breasted geese were to be found around Durankulak that day. As a result of the mild winter in this part of the Balkans, the rest of the population is further north in Romania and Ukraine. This was fine by me as I was excited just to see one goose at all, but is a very small amount for a place which has recorded upwards of 50,000 before.

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Red-breasted Geese

Earlier in the winter, a sizeable flock of 3,000 birds had in fact arrived at Durankulak with a group of white-fronted geese. Due to a stroke of bad luck however, the day of their arrival corresponded with the final day of hunting season and the flock was beset upon on all sides by hunters. The geese were quickly driven out over the sea where they spent the night. It is unsurprisingly that they were gone the next day, having retreated back to Romania.

As I watched the small geese flock, I saw something flash across the corner of my vision: a falcon! “SAKER!” Pavel gesticulated excitedly. The saker dove upon the geese, only pulling out at the last second as the geese burst into the air in a hail of whirring wings and high-pitched, cackling honks. A falcon hunting geese isn’t something I would have expected and was amazing to see. The unfortunate side effect was of course that the geese had scattered.

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Flushed Red-breasted Geese

Despite all the other good birds we saw that afternoon, I kept thinking back to those geese, flying away out over the lake, and thinking about the herculean struggles they will face during every step of their lives.

The situation for the geese is not all gloom however. Perhaps one of the better ways to preserve the geese is in the development of ecotourism in the area. The idea, which has been implemented elsewhere, for example in response to the bushmeat trade in sub-Saharan Africa and logging in the Amazon Basin, is that an economic boost as a result of increased ecotourism will persuade poachers (or loggers, farmer, etc.) that wildlife is more valuable alive than dead. As coastal Bulgaria increases its birding infrastructure and becomes even more known as a topnotch birding destination, this approach is slowly being implemented. Perhaps the most exciting event on this front is the annual Shabla Kite Festival, a popular local event in the town just south of Durankulak. The festival is dedicated to the red-breasted goose and to raising awareness of its plight.

Of course there is a long way to go. On their migration corridor, the geese pass through a whole slew of countries of which Bulgaria is just one. In every country the geese are confronted with one problem or another. However, with luck and the hard work of Bulgarian birders, scientists, and conservationists, these geese will be foraging in the fields and wetlands of Bulgaria’s Black Sea coast for years to come.

 

More information on red-breasted goose conservation can be found (among other places) on the linked website of The Bulgarian Society for the Protection of Birds.

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Barely Bagging Bulgarian Birds in Burgas

A Plea for Forgiveness: before I start, I sincerely apologise for the title… I just couldn’t resist.


Birding is a sport of highs and lows. Sometimes you see what you want and sometimes you don’t. This is an accepted part of the hobby we all love. Nature is always beautiful and there’s always something to marvel at, so dipping is never all that bad. That being said, continually failing to find what you are looking for, while knowing that it’s probably due to logistic limitations placed upon you, can be an incredibly frustrating experience. This I learned the hard way in Burgas, Bulgaria.

The city of Burgas, the fourth largest in Bulgaria, is a gritty, port city, filled with communist industry and high rises. While the city appears to be on the rise again, fueled by the EU, the lust of rich westerners for nice beaches, and Black Sea shipping, it nevertheless feels like a forgotten, crumbling corner of the Balkan Peninsula. It is however, excellent for birding. Located on the coast, hemmed in between the Black Sea and three lakes of varying salinity, Burgas is a mecca for migrating and overwintering waterbirds. This was what I had come to see, and in particular, I was seeking the small wintering populations of Pallas’s gull and white-headed duck, both charismatic and sought-after species.

The catch is that, as is standard for this year, I didn’t have a car or a scope. This is usually fine, with public transport taking me most places I need to go, and me muddling by scopeless. However, in the spread out and waterbird-heavy Burgas, I was at a distinct disadvantage. Despite this, on my first morning in Burgas, I set out enthusiastically by taxi for the Poda Nature Reserve, located along a bay and a series of pools.

Throughout my visit, I was blown away by Poda, for it is truly excellent, excellent birding. Common shelducks whirred into the air around me, reed buntings fluttered through the brush, and I was able to get brilliant looks at my lifer mustached warblers which I succeeded to pish up from a flock of the always-stunning bearded reedlings.

As the day warmed up, big flocks of pelicans started to soar. Mixed in with the majority of Dalmatians were a handful of great white pelicans, noticeable thanks to their black underwings and smaller size.

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Dalmatian Pelican

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Great White Pelican (top right) in a Flock of Dalmatians

A group of seven Eurasian spoonbills were also spotted in one of the pools, an increase from the recent reports of two.

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Eurasian Spoonbills

However, despite searching through the big gull flocks loafing in the bay, I was unable to locate any of the Pallas’s gulls that have been frequenting the area (the lack of a scope hurt me here). A little disappointed, but still on a high from a good morning of birding, I headed to my next stop: Burgas Lake.

The three lakes which encircle Burgas are, as already stated, of varying levels of salinity. Lake Burgas is brackish and so attracts large number of diving ducks. In particular, it is home to huge numbers of pochard. Hundreds of these aythya ducks were crowded in along the shoreline. Mixed in were a few tufted ducks and a handful of my lifer smew, the most dapper of mergansers.

Burgas is a huge lake though, and upon arrival it quickly became evident that it was going to be hard to bird without both a car and a scope. After a couple hours of walking along the verge of a busy road trying to get new vantage points over the lake, I abandoned my hopes of finding any of the small raft of white-headed ducks that winters here.

Having dipped on my two biggest targets and growing weary from all the walking, my spirits were dropping fast. It was in this mood that I got a taxi to drop me at Atanasovsko Lake, the saltiest and shallowest of Burgas’s lake triumvirate. Here I was hoping for slender-billed gull, which, by my count, would be my 200th species for the Western Palearctic. I had planned for this milestone to be white-headed duck, but what can you do. I’m definitely not salty. I swear.

When I got to the lake, I discovered that I felt a little hungry. It was only then that, much to my chagrin, I realised I hadn’t eaten any food in the past 22 hours. Whoops. A nearby gas station remedied this minor setback (I can now say confidently that nothing tastes better than pre-packaged ice cream after a day of accidental fasting) and I returned to the birds. Pretty quickly I was able to spot some slender-billed gulls mixed into a flock of black-headed gulls. It was an awesome bird and a solid milestone, but I felt more relieved than anything after the two big misses earlier in the day.

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Distant Slender-billed Gulls

The sun was setting by now, and I spent the rest of the evening enjoying the birds of the lake. Lots of dabbling ducks were milling about, the occasional pied avocet would fly by, and very distant greater flamingos and black-tailed godwits were slightly unusual. It was a needed bit of calm in what had been a hard and stressful day of birding.

The next morning, before I had to catch a bus to Varna for my next leg of Bulgarian birding, I opted to check back to Lake Burgas for another shot at white-headed duck. A couple more hours of fruitless, scopeless, and stiff-tailless searching, and I finally handed my sword over to the Birding Gods and surrendered.

Overall it was a day and a half reminding me how little is guaranteed in birding. Perhaps the even more valuable lessons however, was that I shouldn’t go a whole day without eating, and that next time I’m in Burgas, I should make sure to have a scope and a car with me!

As I boarded the bus leaving Burgas, thoughts of white-headed ducks and Pallas’s gulls swam about as I contemplated where I’d get these birds later in the year. Turkey, I assured myself. My redemption will be found in Turkey. In a couple weeks we’ll see if I was right.

 

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Never Stop Birding: The Saga of a Bulgarian Mega

Part One: The Discovery

A couple days ago I decided to visit the Ethnographic Museum in the Old Town of Plovdiv, Bulgaria. It was right around the corner from my hostel, located in a beautiful building, and just generally seemed like a pleasant way to spend an evening. When I was finished seeing the museum, I decided to rest for a bit in the garden. The day was a warm one, the sun was going down, and I wanted to take a second to take in my surroundings. However, within minutes of sitting down on a bench, my rest was interrupted by a bird call which I did not recognize. From somewhere in the tree directly behind me was coming a slurred, repeated “dewee” note. Since I’m still trying to learn European birds, I was tempted to dismiss it as something common, but decided to check it out just in case.

What I found in that tree was a small, very active bird with a bit of marking on the face and that reminded me a lot of a kinglet. Since I didn’t have my binoculars with me, I couldn’t get all that good of a look, and the bird quickly flew up and out of the garden. With what field marks I had noticed and particularly with that strange call in mind, I consulted the Collins Guide App and, having eliminated the crests due to voice, quickly opened up the warblers.

One warbler in particular stood out from the rest: yellow-browed warbler. What visual clues I had seen matched and the call sounded spot on. A yellow-browed would be very rare in Bulgaria with only 4 previous records so, elated, I dashed to my hostel to get binoculars, a camera, and sound recording gear; posted on the Birding Bulgaria Facebook group; and set out to try to refind the bird.

Unfortunately, despite looking all across the Old Town, I could not locate it again before it went dark. I resolved myself to look for the bird at dawn and, via my Facebook post, made plans to meet up with local birder Georgi Gerdzhikov who would join me for the hunt.

Part Two: The Hunt

The next morning I woke up, hurriedly dressed, and, with the sun shining its first rays onto the world, stepped outside the hostel. I froze instantly. I had heard it. The bird was close! Just around the corner! I rushed over, and, as I rounded the corner, found a very happy Georgi already on the bird and photographing it. Over the next half hour we watched the warbler bounce back and forth between the garden of the ethnographic museum and the trees across the street. Relieved that I could finally document it, I snapped photos and made recordings to my heart’s content. It was an extremely hyperactive little thing, constantly on the move and keeping up a stream of call notes.

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Extremely pleased, I returned to my hostel for breakfast and to process and upload photos and recordings.

Part Three: The Revelation

Not long after I posted photos and audio to Facebook, it was pointed out in the comments that the bird didn’t actually seem to be a yellow-browed at all. In fact, both audio and the photos showed it being the similar, but substantially rarer Hume’s warbler! Researching this identification, I saw what people meant: the bird lacked much contrast in the supercilium or the underparts, had dark legs and only one visible wing bar, and the spectrograms on closer inspection matched the call of Hume’s. I was a little sheepish that my Western Palearctic birding knowledge wasn’t sharp enough yet to have properly identified it at first, but that shame was vastly eclipsed by excitement at having found something even rarer!! The one downside was that, as Hume’s is the Central Asian counterpart of the Siberian-breeding yellow-browed, it was no longer a lifer for me as I’d seen them in Kyrgyzstan.

It was later confirmed that this represents the first record of Hume’s warbler for Bulgaria and, accordingly, people have been flowing in from across the country to see it. The bird has remained extremely cooperative, sticking to a small area of the Old Town and lots of birders have been able to see it. At one point it even showed up in the garden of my hostel which was kind of neat.

Most importantly, this bird is a great example of why you should always be aware of your surroundings. I hadn’t been looking for birds of any kind, and yet found one of my rarest self-found vagrants to date. It also shows the importance of curiosity in birding and particularly in rarity finding. I didn’t recognize a call and so sought out the bird (even without binoculars). Had I not, I would have missed out on a great sighting.

Recordings of the Hume’s:
https://www.xeno-canto.org/401452
https://www.xeno-canto.org/401453

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A Snowy End to the Year

I returned from my self-imposed Bosnian exile in late December to celebrate the holidays with my friends and family for a couple weeks. My first port of call in the US was Delaware where I would be spending Christmas at my aunt and uncle’s house in Newark. My ability to go birding more frequently due to access to a car made me resolved to get out birding at least once while I was in the state.

The opportunity presented itself when I got a day free of family time and was able to arrange to meet Delaware young birder Jerald Reb for a morning of birding around Prime Hook National Wildlife Refuge (NWR).

Delaware has two famous NWRs named after hooks (geographical hooks that is): Prime and Bombay. Bombay Hook NWR I have visited a number of times but I had never driven far enough south to visit Prime Hook. Besides the appeal of a novel site to bird, there were also reports of a continuing snowy owl at Prime Hook, a species I very much wanted to catch up with.

My 5 am wakeup came far too early and I lethargically drove out of my family’s driveway and made my first stop of the day, a roadside Wawa, that incredible Midatlantic institution that I have spent most of my life deprived of. Crunching on a made-to-order biscuit and cheese quesadilla and sipping the delicious nectar that is a Wawa smoothie, I made my way down the empty interstate.

Eventually, after getting lost in labyrinthine American back roads, I pulled up next to Jerald at a spot supposedly good for long-eared owl. The qualifying word “supposedly” is the important one in that sentence as we dipped on the owls who stubbornly refused to even give a single toot in response to Jerald’s imitations.

We also dipped on the long-eared’s cousin the short-eared owl, although eastern screech and a couple great horned owls saved the pre-dawn hours from being a completely pointless endeavor of standing in place and freezing.

By the time the sun rose over the coastal marsh in which we found ourselves, big skeins of snow geese had begun to appear, shimmering as their white bodies flashed in the light of the young day. This whetted my appetite enough to want to go see some waterfowl so we headed to Fowler Beach Road in Prime Hook to do just that.

The wind proved my worst enemy as we walked down the entrance road to the beach. I had foolishly left my windbreaking outer shell (usually indispensable to my winter birding) in Sarajevo as the predictable side affect of deciding to rush through all my packing at 1 am the morning of my flight. Now I was paying the price, shivering bitterly and cursing my stupidity through clenched teeth. Thankfully, there were enough birds around to make me forget all about the cold.

Masses of snow geese were bobbing on the water of Delaware Bay when we arrived at the beach and a mixed flock of snow buntings and horned larks gave mumbled call notes as they moved around the sand.

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Masses of snow geese irrupt off the water

However, our attention was soon turned to the hoard of telephoto lenses assembled just down the beach: we seemed to have found our snowy owl.

And we had indeed, arriving to find the owl nonchalantly perched on a fence post. Once again the golden rule of rarity chasing had proved valuable: always look for the crowd of scopes and cameras.

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Snowy Owl

It was a beautiful bird but there’s only so long you can stay amongst such a crowd of rabid snowy owl photographers so we eventually ensconced to the shore to look for waterfowl. Besides the massive raft of snow geese, not much was present, although a small flock of surf scoters was well welcomed.

Fowler’s beach wasn’t done turning up gems however as we were also able to locate a couple of Lapland longspurs amongst the snow bunting flock. As we were preparing to head back to the cars, the snowy owl decided to take flight and alight on the fence adjacent to us. It was stunning of course to see the owl in flight, but perhaps the more impressive (and definitely more comical) sight was the parade of tripods and camera-toting humans which was hustling down the beach to catch up with the bird. No sooner had they gotten back into position then the bird took flight again, this time landing on the fence post at the start of the beach entrance road! Not wanting to be one of those people who flush a snowy owl, we were forced to abort our attempted departure from the beach and settled down to watch the owl again (as the tripod stampede caught up and settled in around us).

Eventually the owl flew again and we were free to return to our cars. At this point I bid goodbye to Jerald who had to head home and headed farther south to bird some coastal wetland sites. These were somewhat slower than I had hoped but a good assortment of dabbling ducks as well as a large group of American avocets were present. The real highlight however was a stunning, continuing dark-morph rough-legged hawk which I got to watch hunting over the marshes.

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Rough-legged Hawk

My final rare sighting of the day came as I was driving back to Newark and just about to exit the freeway for my second Wawa stop. I spotted something which appeared to me to be a gull along the roadside. As I drove closer, it flushed up and revealed itself to be a cattle egret! An out of season rarity and a good way to wrap up an excellent morning and my first ABA birding outing in a while.

 

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Football Fanaticism, Cormorant Counting, and Waterfowl Watching in Belgrade

Sport has a lot of interesting traditions. However, few are quite as crazy (bordering on the psychotic), or fanatically violent as what’s known as the Eternal Derby, the soccer match between the two Serbian teams Red Star and Partizan. Essentially, the huge groups of “ultras” who support the two teams, use the game as an excuse to riot and set off an unsafe amount of pyrotechnics. This game was something I had wanted to witness for years, so when I found out it was scheduled for this week, I just had to go.

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The Eternal Derby!

The game was crazy, exhilarating, memorable, and loads of fun, but this is a birding blog, so a Balkan orgy of violence isn’t the point. What is the point, is the birding I was able to do in Belgrade before I returned to Sarajevo.

Serbia has one of the largest (and best?) birding community in the Balkans and I was excited to experience it. I was lucky enough to be invited to join Dragan Simić, a Belgrade ornithologist and bird blogger, to count pygmy cormorants flying up the Sava River to their roost. In a rare event last winter, the Danube River froze, leading to massive mortality in the very large and important population of cormorants that overwinters in the city. The count was to determine exactly how much of the population had survived.

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Pygmy Cormorant (taken the next day but whatever)

I met Dragan in a bar on the banks of the Sava where we carried out the count over beer (this is Europe after all). At first the cormorants came by in a trickle, most alone, occasionally in a small flock. As it got closer to dark however, the trickle turned into a stream and big flocks over a hundred birds spilled past, doing their characteristic short, choppy flight style, as if scared of being late to the roost. By the time it was too dark to see, the stream and died down again and we had ended with around 2,100 birds, a higher number than expected. According to Dragan this means that 60% of the population survived, likely due to the Sava remaining ice free. At this point, I was invited to attend the upcoming Birdlife Serbia meeting happening in a few days in Novi Sad, but I had to decline as college applications beckoned me back to Sarajevo.

I was however able to do some birding the next morning before catching my bus. The Danube and the Sava intersect each other in downtown Belgrade, and this spot has proven a boon for migrating and wintering waterfowl. The island in the middle of the two rivers is also home to a pair of white-tailed eagles! Quite impressive for the middle of a major capital city. It was this spot I wanted to check out.

I arrived that morning to find Eurasian coots and mallards swarming all over the place: typical. Moving away from the shallower areas, the swarms of coots turned into swarms of black-headed gulls, a number of which had quite a lot of the black left in the hood. This was odd since neither the gulls last month in Albania, nor those last week in Bosnia had any black at all. Are these birds molting into basic plumage late? Or into alternate plumage early??

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Black-headed Gull

I also began to pick up on the big flocks of common pochard scattered along the shore. A bit of scanning even turned up a crisp male ferruginous duck mixed in! The more I see these birds, the more beautiful I think they are, definitely in the top five Western Palearctic ducks.

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Common Pochard

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Ferruginous Duck

Loads of cormorants of both species were present too. Presumably this was my second meeting with these pygmy cormorant individuals since, in theory, we saw the whole population the night before. I will simply never get tired of these birds though. They’re like little tiny, long-tailed double-cresteds with the slim, snaky necks of an anhinga. Fantastic birds!

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Pygmy Cormorant

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Doing its best anhinga impression — nice try

Around this point, the number of large gulls in the river began to increase and I began my long descent into insanity. The majority of the large gulls here are yellow-legged. However, in the winter, the number of Caspians picks up. The latter is a bird I needed for the Western Palearctic and wanted badly to find. However, this ID is a tricky one and my experience with European gulls is slim as it is. Needless to say, I spent a lot of time staring at distant gulls and taking tons of photos. Eventually I found a few birds that looked satisfactorily Caspianesque but I will have to return to analyze photos more thoroughly before I am satisfied. Gulls are not a fun time.

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Yellow-legged Gulls

When I turned around to walk back the way I came (pulling some tufted ducks in the process), I noticed big groups of mallards and black-headed gulls taking flight and knew to turn my attention skywards. Lo and behold, there it was, a massive white-tailed eagle spiraling up over the Sava: a lifer! Europe’s largest eagle wasn’t a disappointment either but unfortunately, when a suspiciously Capsian-y gull came by, I took my eyes off the eagle for 30 seconds in which time it managed to vanish. Oh well, I’m sure to see one to my satisfaction at some point this year.

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Eared Grebe (not an eagle)

Thus ended my time in Belgrade as I headed to the bus stop for the, always agonizing, seven hour bus trip back to Sarajevo. It had been a great opportunity to get acquainted with the Serbian birding scene and I’m sure to be back in Belgrade sometime, maybe as soon as January. Better looks at white-tailed eagle next time? Maybe a great black-backed gull? Velvet scoter? Only time will tell.

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Inadvertent Bare-naked Birding in Bosnia

I spent a part of this week in Central Bosnia, traveling around and seeing some of the historic sites. Since I wasn’t planning on doing any birding and was trying to travel as light as possible, I left my binoculars in Sarajevo with my telephoto lens (you can probably guess where this is going already).

One of the towns I visited was Jajce, the quaint, historic, mixed Muslim and Catholic town between the more substantial hubs of Travnik and Banja Luka. Outside Jajce are two lakes known as the Pliva lakes (after the river that forms them) and I decided to take a walk one morning to see these lakes for myself.

Before I had even reached the lakes, I began to regret not having binoculars as I located a pair of white-throated dippers singing and chasing each other around the river. When I arrived at the first lake (the Small Pliva Lake), I could see a number of mallards as well as a group of great cormorants roosting along the bank in the center of the lake.

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The Pliva Lakes

Much to my surprise, as I walked along, I started to notice flocks of ducks that didn’t look like mallards, but were too far away to tell. I pulled out my camera with its small lens attached (the only photography I had planned on doing this trip was architecture and landscape) and by zooming in heavily on the photos, could just make out eurasian wigeon. I hadn’t expected waterfowl to be on this lake at all since I had assumed it was rather shallow and a lake in the middle of the mountains in Bosnia just didn’t strike me as the best wintering waterfowl spot. Now I was really regretting not having binoculars. This regret only increased as I continued to walk around the lake and gadwall, little grebe, and northern shoveller all put in appearances. I also noticed an interesting bird on the far shore of the lake. Using my camera as best I could as binoculars, it looked suspiciously loon-like. However, that was the best I could do from such a distance.

When I reached the far end of the lake, I decided to walk back down the other side, hoping I would be able to locate the loon lookalike from earlier. There I found another surprise, a red-crested pochard! A lifer for me and I bird I have been hoping to find for a while.

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More flocks of wigeon, shoveller, and gadwall milled about and I spotted a group of suspiciously ferruginous duck-looking birds. Unfortunately, they were way too distant for my camera-turned-binoculars.

Despite this, I did manage to catch up with the potential loon and was able to confirm at as an Arctic loon (black-throated diver), the first eBird record for Bosnia and another lifer! Persistence pays off in birding, even when you don’t have binoculars!

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Arctic Loon (Black-throated Diver)

I’ve spent the days since ruminating on the status of this bird in the country. Presumably they can be found wintering off Bosnia’s very limited (only 9km long) coastline. They also must migrate through the interior of the country, although I would suspect they are somewhat scarce as migrants (there aren’t a huge number of eBird records from the interior of even the more heavily eBirded Western Balkan countries).

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eBird records of Arctic loon from the Western Balkans (including my Pliva Lakes one)

The Handbook of Birds of the World cites them as wintering, “occasionally inland,” as this individual is presumably doing at this time of year. I can find one other online record, from the 90s in the Mostar area (iGoTerra). There is also mention of a pair of Arctic loons, again at the Pliva Lakes, in November 2007 from a BirdForum thread. In short, I suspect they are somewhat scarce in the interior of the country and probably a pretty decent bird, but certainly not as rare as “first eBird record” would suggest.

Overall, a pretty good morning and I was able to pull a good deal of success out of an outing where I was vastly underprepared to go birding!

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Albania’s Natural Crown Jewel: Karavasta National Park

When I first visited Tirana, about a week ago, I met for a beer with Taulent Bino of the Albanian Ornithological Society (AOS). The AOS, for those who don’t know, is doing some really valuable work with conservation and promotion of ecotourism in Albania and it is really great to see such a strong group working in such an underbirded country. The main project they’re working on at the moment is opposing a proposed urbanisation plan for Divajka-Karavasta National Park. More information about the urbanisation can be found on their website or on their Facebook page.  Essentially it would be a catastrophe, drastically reducing the size of the vital coastal wetlands in the park and causing a vast amount of damage to the area’s wildlife. In Tirana, I arranged to go with Taulent and a couple other biologists to Karavasta for some birding and specifically to count Dalmatian pelicans within the park.

I had been wanting to bird Karavasta since first researching Albania as it is most definitely the most famous birding site in the country and contains great habitat for the aforementioned pelicans as well as many waders, shorebirds, waterfowl and others. Consequently, I was very excited for the opportunity to visit.

A few days later I returned to Tirana from the city of Berat, and was tried to get some sleep before the next morning’s early departure. Sadly however, when you have to wake up early for birding, no sleep is enough and I staggered out my hostel around 5:40, tired but ready for some birds.

The first stop was at a dock on the Karavasta Lagoon. The lagoon is mostly quiet this time of year but a bunch of greater flamingos were distantly present, as well as a group of Dalmatian pelicans so far out I could barely make them out.

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Black-headed Gull

The next stop, an observation tower overlooking some of the many wetlands in the park, was much more productive. Eurasian coots filled your binocular field anywhere you looked; big flocks of Eurasian teal, northern shovelers, and Eurasian wigeon flushed and shuffled themselves in the distance; Eurasian marsh harriers catered over the reeds; big flocks of flamingos noisily honked, wading up to their bodies in the deep water. Of course there were pelicans too, with a group of three milling about. It wasn’t until this point that I realized how big these birds really are. When they swam near the flamingos they dwarfed them and their bulky bodies made the ubiquitous coots and ducks look like mere specks.

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Eurasian Marsh-harrier

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Greater Flamingos

From the observation tower a number of good raptors were spotted as well, including a flyby osprey which caught a fish and then vacated the premises and, the highlight for me, my lifer greater spotted eagle, a pretty good bird for the area, which slowly flew closer and closer to us until it was directly circling the tower, giving a great opportunity for study.

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Greater Spotted Eagle

As we drove to the next spot, we stopped to chat with some guys who worked at a pumphouse in the park and, this being the Balkans where hospitality is treasured and people are exceptionally friendly, we ended up being invited for coffee and rakija (a fruit brandy which is extremely popular in the Balkans and also extremely high in alcohol). we accepted and spent the next half hour at his house sipping rather liberally filled glasses of rakija and eating locally grown oranges.

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Birders!

Drinks finished, we went in search of shorebirds, spotting the eagle again on the way as well as our first hen harrier of the day. Common greenshanks and redshanks flushed from the edges of marshes and ditches as we drove down waterlogged, mud covered tracks before arriving to a beach along the Adriatic where the real shorebirding began. Sanderling and dunlin were the main species present but, through the biting ocean wind, we were able to find a couple black-bellied plovers as well as two Kentish plovers: a lifer for me!

Shorebirds ticked, we headed into a nearby town for coffee with one of the wardens for the park (yes, the second coffee stop of the day, this is Albania after all). After we were refueled with coffee and rakija, we stopped at a couple more places to count pelicans, took the car to a car wash (it really needed it after all the mud in the refuge), and then headed back to Tirana. For the pelican count that morning, we had tallied 72, further proving the ornithological value of this National Park.

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Dalmatian Pelicans

Unfortunately, that was the end of my last day in Albania… I thoroughly enjoyed my time in the country, particularly the birding. It is a highly underrated country which has some great birds and some really important habitat for wildlife. In light of this, the work that the AOS is doing is incredible and it is well worth checking out their website to see just how much awesome stuff they’re doing. And of course, many thanks to them and Taulent for the opportunity to visit Karavasta! The birding was excellent and I even managed to get my 100th species for Albania, Eurasian curlew!!

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My 100th bird species for Albania

 

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