Last week I crossed the border from Montenegro into Albania by bus. I’m in Albania and Kosovo for about a month, and have been doing a little bit of birding while here. This has been a fascinating experience as these are incredibly underbirded countries and so, in many cases, I have had to locate birding sites on my own with limited outside knowledge.
My first birding stop was the Kune-Vain-Tale (quite a mouthful of a name) Nature Reserve outside the town of Lezha. I had found this place randomly on Google Maps the day before and was able to take a bus from Shkodër, where I was staying, to Lezha and then a taxi from there to the reserve. Despite this complicated itinerary, I was welcomed by three greater flamingos feeding in the lagoon which composes much of the reserve. A lifer and a big target for me in Southeastern Europe out of the way in ten seconds was a harbinger of good things to come. And good things did indeed come. Over the course of the next three hours I walked the road through the reserve and picked up a good assortment of waterbirds including great bittern, water rail, and ferruginous duck (another big target).
Coastal wetlands like this one along the Adriatic in Albania are critical habitat for migratory and wintering waterfowl (namely ferruginous duck), shorebirds, and waders and many (including this one) are listed as Important Bird Areas.
A few days later I found myself in the Albanian Alps inside Valbona National Park. The habitat variety of country’s like Albania is staggering as, within only an hour or so of driving, coastal marshes and Mediterranean plain give way to bold, dramatic mountain peaks.
And bold and dramatic they are, making for beautiful hiking. This is the heartland of Albania, mountains filled since time immemorial with mountain tribes who have fended off invading forces as disparate as the Romans, the Ottomans, and the Serbs. I doubt any of those armies had time for birding, although they were really missing out, as it is quite good!
During my day and half long visit, I hiked up Maja e Thatë, one of the many mountains above the Valbona Valley.
Ravens flew overhead, mistle thrush burst from the shrubbery, and a grey-headed woodpecker made an early appearance (one of my last needed European woodpecker species). As the trail got steeper and I got more tired, the birding got even more rewarding with a few spotted nutcrackers giving good looks, and mixed species flocks of tits giving me a substitute for the fall warblers I’m missing in the US.
The highlight for me however came in the huge flock of alpine chough which circled around the mountain peak and then flew, spiraling acrobatically and calling raucously, right over my head.
I adore these high elevation corvids and have been fascinated with them since I, as a little kid in England, flipping through a European bird book for the first time, discovered they existed. It was also great to get better looks than I had at my lifer in the Tien Shan Mountains in Kyrgyzstan.
The hike back down featured less birds but a nice, although distant, look at a calling black woodpecker was nice (it’s a species I can never get tired of).
Albania is an incredibly underbirded country (as are most of its Balkan neighbours) but it is not at all from lack of quality. This is a country that deserves much more attention from birders who could help fill in the gaps in birding knowledge or, at the very least, appreciate it’s stunning natural beauty.