Friday, 8 September 2017

Northern Croatia, birding mixed with a family holiday.

1 of 5  Juvenile Golden Orioles that frequented our Lodge garden near Plitvice National Park

For the last 10 days of August we visited Northern Croatia, Kvarner region, for a family holiday. It was very much a last minute decision - the weather was going to be good and and it looked like a new good value destination for the 4 of us. We figured that we'd spend some time on the coast lazying around and then head inland to the hills for walks and a little birdwatching. With a Hire Car for transport we visited the hilly forested landscapes adjacent to Plitvice National Park including the official park trails.

Flying to Rijeka Airport, on the island of Krk, we started our stay at Crikvenicka a compact holiday town pushed tight into a rocky wooded steep coastline.

Throughout our stay the weather was hot and sunny with temperatures in the 30's. We were not going to be near or visting any wetlands but armed with internet reports of woodland raptors, woodpeckers and owls the forests and hills would create enough avian interest for me.

My first morning walks on the coast quickly drew a picture of what to expect for the days to come. Most days in the wooded gardens surrounding our apartment we were awakened by the flutey calls of Golden Orioles. They sounded so peaceful and dreamy there didn't seem to be a need to get out of bed and physically see the birds. Once out of our apartment in the wooded slopes and gardens that dropped down to the rocky shore, Marsh tits, Hawfinches and Song Thrushes were common in the parkland and gardens. Across the bay a few Shags fished between moored leisure boats and small parties of Little Terns with occasional Yellow-legged Herring Gulls in tow fished in the distance.  In the skies above Crikvenica there was little avian interest at all. This was surprising because the hillls ascended rapidly into a wild mountain landscape that you could imagine everything from Eagles to Kestrels being present. We eventually started to see single Griffon Vutures passing between the mainland and the island of Crec.

Based on a 'enthusiastic' review in 'Lonely Planet Croatia' we visited Ucka national park near Rjelka. From there we took pleasant enough wooodland trails through Beech forests ending with with superb mountain views with the Italian Alps in the distance. Birds here were very scarce, the odd Great Spotted Woodpecker, Chaffinch, Common Buzzard, Marsh Tit, Treecreeper - nothing you might not expect to see in the UK.

Crikvenica is a pleasant enough resort, popular with, Germans, Austrians and all peoples of central Europe. The island of Krk is very busy - avoiding July and August would make life much easier in exploring the island.

The second half of our holiday was a 2 1/2 hour drive from the coast close to world famous Plitvice National Park. Here the Karst Limestone countryside, complete with Gorges and waterfalls looked beautiful.

We stayed at a village close to Plitvice and from our Lodge we had views of seemingly endless mountains and forests stretching into Bosnia. Surely there would be Birds of  prey and Owls galore? We could also see plenty of mixed farmland, with open countryside and rough meadows of birch and bracken. I planned early morning and evening walks just on the feel that they would provide sounds and views of some of SE Europes speciality flora and fauna.

Sadly, trully outstanding wildlife never really materialised. With the exception of Common Buzzards which were plentiful, birds of prey were very scarce and in our 5 day stay I saw just 1 Sparrowhawk and no Kestrels. At night the only Owl I could hear was one distant Tawny Owl. My night walks did provide me with good views Greater Horse Shoe Bats and a typical Mediterranean chorus of Tree frogs and Crickets were always there to hear.

My morning walks through undulating woodlands and open scrubby countryside were better. Autumn migration was underway, juvenile Red backed Shrikes and Spotted flycatchers mixed with Wheatears and thrushes were plentiful. In the sky occasional flocks of Beeeaters were on the move. In the hills where I walked I would often see a lonesome Short toed Eagle and a Raven pair. One morning a flock of 52 Ravens passed through. As our holiday was in middle / late August I didn't think we would be too late for Honey Buzzards migrating, but alas, I left not seeing none. I saw ocassional Roe Deer and Shooters' hides everywhere. I saw just one Squirrel and with the exception of a close by roar of a Boar no other mammals were seen.

Woodpeckers for which the Plitvice National Park is famous for, were also a struggle to see and hear. Unlike home, Lesser Spotted Woodpeckers were fairly common and often in the immediate vicinity of  Great Spotted Woodpeckers.  I heard just one Middle Spotted Woodpecker from our apartment balcony. Our lodge balcony was to be our best birding site. A mixture of woodland, grape vines and vegetable patches complete with chickens surrounded our holiday house, Black Redstarts chased about on the roof tops, Tree Sparrows mixed in with house sparrows hovering up the chicken feed. In the Firs and Cherry trees around the apartment, little flocks of Hawfinches moved around never far from Nuthatches and Marsh Tits and Spotted flycatchers. In the mountains visible behind we saw Short toed Eagle, passing flocks of Bee eaters and Golden Orioles. The latter was to become the most memorable birds of our trip, as a small flock of Juvenile Golden Orioles which chased each other around in the tree canopy, occasionally gave very close views from the first floor of our lodge windows and balcony.

We flew to Rijeka from Stanstead (Ryan Air). Car hire is straight forward enough (we chose Hertz).
Croatia is much cheaper than Spain, France - so is a good option for families. Come here to see Plitvice National park. It has family friendly walking, unique, beautiful and memorable.

There are lots of good National Parks for better birdwatching in Croatia, all will have closer airports to them than Rijelka.

The Lonely Planet Croatia guide is useful - but we found it tended to over embelish how good every beach/town was. Likewise internet birdwatching website claims for Plitvice National park seem to be exaggerated or in accurate based on our brief stay in Croatia. There are other birdwatchers's reports that have touched upon the lack of birds of prey here, I left feeling puzzled that such stunning landscapes could be so silent of birds. Shooting to blame?

Red Backed Shrikes were common. 

This Short toed Eagle was a daily regular near Plitvice National Park

Wryneck, near Crikvenica, Croatia
A ubiquitous Spotted flycatcher
Juvenile Red Backed Shrikes were common, but the adults had mostly departed south
Plitvice National Park
Plitvice National park
Mountainous karst scenery above Crikvenica, Hawfinches seemed the commonest birds here. Beeeaters and Red backed shrikes were always to be seen,  plus 1 party of Alpine Swifts.
Great Banded Grayling common in Croatian countryside
Another stunning Juvenile Golden Oriole
Brown Bear remains at the caves of Barac near Plitvice National Park - definitely worth a visit.

Keeled Skimmers, were common at Plitvice National Park

Chequered Blue, Plitvice National Park

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