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A Report from

A short time in Albania, 29th April - 4th May 2004,

Robert Butlin

Latin. A dead language you say. I agree, except in one key area: - bird names. So why did I spend a couple of happy days in Albanian wetlands speaking Latin? The European Commission, or more specifically a friend who works for the Delegation of the European Commission and knowing my interest in wildlife phoned up Taulant Bino, a man who has the privilege of being Albania's only professional ornithologist; and I do mean only. Taulant does speak good English (and French) but his colleague had none at all, and I have no Albanian. Hence the Latin, which he had in abundance and I have in parts. So when I looked up to the sky I had to ignore the Red-footed Falcon and instead see Falco vespertinus.

My birdwatching started on Friday 30th April, when with the very grateful approval of Taulant and his colleagues from the Museum of Natural History I hitched a ride on a trip to survey a wetland north of Tirana at which Italian hunters had apparently been shooting Ferruginous Duck Aythia ferrugea over the Winter. On the way up I spotted but was unable to identify, a lone male harrier. Given the report in May's British Birds I'm tempted to claim it as a Pallid (Circus Macronus), but in reality I can't tell.

We drove along a drainage canal all the way to the beach near a place called Tale, with the final section to the beach being along a track over some saline lagoons, which we later discovered dried up over the summer. As the museum Director went to have a coffee and to find out where the permanent water in the area was I watched Sand Martin (Riparia riparia) after Sand Martin head north. Apparently there isn't much of an Eastern Adriatic flyway, but what there is I seemed to have found. A rough guess would be 10 birds a minute over a small area of beach with more over the sea and inland. Numbers remained the same from 08:30 to 17:30, which was when we finished our late lunch. So 1,000 or getting on for 10,000 plus in the day. The martins were accompanied by smaller numbers of Swallows (Hirundo rustica). The salt marsh held few obvious birds except of course for Yellow Wagtails (Motacilla flava feldegg), and later a Marsh Harrier (Circus Auroginosus) plus Little Egrets (Egretta garzetta) and a Grey Heron (Ardea cinerea).

Coffee over and lunch arranged we headed south to where a fisherman had agreed to take us down the river to the point where it joins the Adriatic. But first we had to find the fisherman and once he'd been found were required to have a coffee and raki with him, and I as an Englishman had to have my photograph taken on the steps of his house. Only then could we set off to the boat to be taken downstream.

Albania is a land where farming seems much as it must have been like 200 years ago in England. Farm sizes are small, but more to the point field sizes are tiny, many being little more than 100 metres by 40 metres, with neighbouring fields being planted with different crops. Being low lying there were water-filled ditches by the side of each road.  The birdlife was consequently abundant, Swallows, Sand Martins were the aerial hunters, with fewer House Martins (delichon urbica) and just the odd Red-rumped Swallow (Hirundo daurica).  Apparently the Red-rumped Swallows have taken to breeding in the bunkers that abound in Albania, but only one per each triple set of bunkers, suggesting that the birds are territorial. Given the land was flat I assume they have only moved into this area with the construction and subsequent abandonment of the bunkers, though I had seen bird entering a half finished building on the outskirts of Tirana earlier in the trip. 

This is also Cetti's Warbler (Cettia cetti) country and their explosive calls rang out. It's also good for Nightingales (Luscina megaryncos) and of course low intensity farmland attracts birds such as Spanish Sparrows (Passer hispaniolensis), Tree Sparrows (Passer montanus) and of course House Sparrows (Passer domesticus). My colleagues saw a Buzzard (Buteo buteo) and we all managed a couple of Hobbies (Falco subutteo). It was at this point that the Red-footed Falcons appeared, male and female, hovering some 200 metres off the ground. Having seen a tail once on a nest in Austria, it was very nice to see and clearly identify a couple of flying birds.

But that's not all; what seemed a tiny patch of reed in a roadside ditch held Little Bittern (Ixobrychus Minutus), a definite first for me. The grazing marsh held the expected large numbers of Fan-tailed warblers (Cisticola juncidis) plus the odd Whinchat (Saxicola ruberta) and some Crested Larks (Alula cristatus). The salt-marsh also held Common Sandpiper (Actitis hypoleucos) which breed in the area, to my surprise given that they are birds of northern lakes, lochs and rivers in the UK.  We headed off towards the boat, which was drawn up against the mud bank and got in for a ten minute ride down the river, during which time I managed to see a dark marsh tern that I think, as the rump seemed to be a pure white contrast to the body, was a White-winged Black tern (Chlidonas Leucopterus). 

The river entered the Adriatic with a small bar offshore on which were roosting a couple of hundred waders but at this point we realised the telescope was in the van. Our impression was that they were mostly Dunlin (Calidris alpina) though there were definitely also a few Oystercatchers plus the obligatory Yellow-legged Gulls (Larus cachillans). Occasional Redshank (Tringa totanus) calls sounded out across the marsh, and Little Egrets and Grey Herons stood beside the standing water, although not on the river bank itself. Later 7 curlews (Numensis Arquata) got up and bubbled away, and a single Caspian Tern (Sterna Caspica) flew gently along. Finally a single Ruff (philomachus pugnax) and at least one Little Ringed Plover (Chaudirus dubius) appeared out on the slightly drier areas. Also on the sea were a couple of Black-throated Divers (Gavia Arctica), something of a surprise for me, but there was absolutely no doubt of the identification.

But what about the Ferruginous Duck? Dark ducks with white wingbars and white bellies are, in England, almost certainly Tufted Ducks (Aythia Fuligula). Thus, in the way that Britons tend not to be the best at identifying woodpeckers (Green is green, Great Spotted is black and with vertical white on the back and Lesser Spotted is small with a ladder back, and don't ask about head patterns) I'm not too clear on exactly what a Tufted Duck looks like in flight, hence comparison with Ferruginous is not easy. But the bird I saw seemed to have a much smaller white patch on the belly than Tufteds I've seen recently in Britain.

A very late lunch came to an end about 17:30 by which time the same two (or perhaps different) divers had moved a couple of kilometres north. It was also late enough for a Little Owl (Athene Nocturna) to have emerged and be sitting on a house roof. Apparently like the Red-rumped Swallows the Little Owls have taken to nesting in bunkers. The journey back brought with it the knowledge of another early start but this time heading south, as I'd been invited by Taulant to join him as he ringed the young Dalmatian Pelicans (Pelicanus Crispus) on their breeding station in the Karavasta Lagoons, one of Albania's two Important Bird Areas.

Saturday morning brought a six fifteen am departure for another coastal wetland, but this time one that Taulant knew well, having spent quite a long period there researching the area, though this was the first trip of the year, something that would affect the day's plans.  Without breakfast we headed south to arrive in the town of Divjakë where we stopped off for some food, and also to meet some of the people who were going to help us with the ringing and punt us across the lagoon. With food eaten, and conversations made we headed off at about 08:00 into the reserve, stopping at a café on the boundary. Here the Eastern Adriatic flyway came into action with Wood Sandpipers (Tringa glareola) feeding in flooded fields, fields in which Taulant had counted over 2000 Ruff in previous years.  I also saw a snake, almost certainly an adder, swimming across a dyke.

We then headed into the reserve, through a large area of riverine woodland, formed from a stabilised dune system which in which the tops of the dunes were now deciduous woodland and the bottoms had standing water, though perhaps this will change to mud/boggy ground as the summer wears on. However promising we didn't stop there, but instead at yet another café, where at 08:30 I had my earliest coffee and raki of the trip. Taulant explained that Albanian hospitality required him, on a first trip for some time into an area where he was known, to stop and chat and have a coffee. A second trip would only require a chat, and a third an acknowledgement.

Slipping outside I saw more Red-Rumped and Barn Swallows on telephone wires, plus Great Tits (Parus major), Nightingales, Cetti's Warblers and Spotted Flycatchers (Musicapa striata) plus an unfortunately unidentified Phyloscopus warbler (it looked like a Wood Warbler).  Eventually we headed out to the launching stage, where after a fair amount of chat, and some birdwatching, we headed off into the lagoon. The landbirds had also included Corn Buntings (Milara Calandra) (a common Albanian bird), Zitting Cisticola, what looked to me like a Southern Grey Shrike (Lanius Meridionalis) and of course Yellow Wagtails.

It's a new experience being punted across a saline lagoon.without any kind of life-vest, though as the water was never more than a metre deep my fears of drowning did quickly evaporate. The lagoon was relatively quiet, with the odd Dalmatian Pelican gliding in, some almost certainly Common Terns, the odd Yellow-Legged Gull (Larus Cachinans), an unidentified godwit, at least one Great Cormorant (Phalocrocorax carbo), a flight of 14 Tufted Ducks and two pairs of Pintails (Anas acuta).

The trick ringing Dalmatian Pelicans is to approach the island, drop some people off at one end then punt round to the other end. On a signal from those in the punt those dropped off run as quickly as possible to the nesting colony to keep the young bird on the colony, where they can be caught and ringed. The adults swim off.  I was one of those dropped off, to lie flat on the dry vegetation. All nice and simple except that saline lagoon islands are home to chrominid flies. Apparently not biters the sheer number (very rough guess 1000 per cubic metre, and all less than 50 cms off the ground) meant it was not too pleasant an experience. Soon the signal came and we ran across the island, keeping all but two of the juvenile birds on the island. Over a 20 minute period 17 birds were ringed with 5 left unringed as they were too young (I covered them to keep the sun off). There were also three unhatched eggs. We headed off as soon as possible, and were able to see the adults quickly heading back to the nesting colony.

And that's about it for Karavasta. It was May Day, still a key Albanian Public holiday for this formerly Communist state, and a Saturday to boot. Karavasta is protected but does not have restrictions on entry, and by 12 noon it was getting increasingly crowded, and in any case on a hot day the birds were hiding. So we headed back, passing one accident on the road (not an uncommon event in Albania) and getting back to Tirana for 2.30pm, back to the House Martins, Barn Swallows, Collared Doves (Streptopelia Decaoto), Swifts (Apus apus) and Feral Pigeons (Columba Livia).

Sunday was something of a rest day, on which my host, his mother, wife and young child, plus a German/Austrian couple (ie one of each) went for a picnic in the hills above Tirana. After a hairy drive we parked up in an old hilltop village, that was home to many pairs of House Martins and walked to the picnic site among the olive groves. 2pm in a relatively dry, hot landscape is not bird time, so apart from the aerial feeders I saw little except a Buzzard and a Kestrel (Falco tinnuculus). Picnicking was also relatively bird free, save for the pair of Black-eared Wheatears (Oenanthe hispanica mel). It was only after we set off for a short walk around 4pm that the birds started appearing, with Blackcaps (Sylvia atracapilla) singing, Subalpine Warblers (Sylvia Cantillans) even managing the odd song flight and Linnets (Carduelis cannabina) on the ground confusing slightly as they seemed to be missing the red forehead. Later, having a drink at one of Albania's many cafes we saw at least one pair of nesting Spanish Sparrows, and in the olive groves heard Nightingales and I saw a Spotted Flycatcher.

I was told the German gentleman with us was interested in birds, so I'd hoped to have some more time in Latin. This proved not to be the case as he was very much a beginner, though my host's mother, though not always too sure of herself was a much more able birdwatcher than she gave herself credit for.  So I was quickly realising that Monday's trip, to the saline lagoons of Lezhe (to the north of where I'd been on Monday) looked like being a case of me explaining and others listening. But it turned out to be great fun.

The group was not quite as for the picnic. We had me, my host, his mother, the German guy Jochen and a young Irishman Michael who was keen on getting out but not very knowledgeable. Unlike Karavasta Lezhe does not appear to have any extensive woodland, though there are some trees and one smaller more wooded patch near the sea. Otherwise it is reedbeds, open water and drier paths with bushes and small trees. We arrived at 7am after another early start. Sand Martins dominated overhead with some Swallows and the occasional Red-rumped. On the vocal front the Cetti's Warblers were vociferous, as were the Zitting Cisticolas. Both were new to my companions so we spent some time both trying to see them and fixing their distinctive calls in our minds. I'd somehow missed the expected Red-backed Shrikes (Lannius collurio) on this trip, but here they were common, with a bird about every 2-300 metres. The more arboreal areas had the odd Spotted Flycatcher, which thankfully did as their name suggests and went sallying for insects. There were also a good few Stonechats (Saxicola torquata) which are both visible and fairly common in the countryside. The final new species seen was the Sardinian Warbler (Sylvia Melanocephala), a bird of course typical of Mediterranean scrub, but one which I'd previously missed in Albania.

Overhead we saw a few yellow legged gulls, some Little Egrets and Grey Herons and to my great pleasure a couple of Glossy Ibises (Plegadis Falcinellus), my first ones in Albania, and except for a lone bird on the Cota Dońana, my first in Europe. But for those who don't know a lot about birding a couple of distantly flying Glossy Ibises are not that interesting; far more fun was trying to see the Great Reed Warblers (Acrocephalus Auredinaceus) which croaked away in the reeds. We did succeed but only after a good wait. On the way to the warblers we'd headed off on an increasingly wet diversion to see what looked like a more interesting habitat. It was, but even more interesting was what was over the other side of the river. A lone Black-winged Stilt (Himantopus himantopus) was simple, though the distant terns were a lot harder (probably White winged), and the small flock of medium sized waders had me really wondering. Pratincoles? I don't really know.  

The reedbeds did have some confusing species. A small streaked warbler with an eye stripe in a small tree very near water is obviously a Sedge Warbler (Acrocephalus schoenobachus) in Britain. In Albania it might be a Moustached Warbler (A melanopogon). Birds shaped like Reed Warblers (A scirpaceus) might be Marsh Warblers (A palustris). I'm pretty sure this was a Reed Warbler, it was in a reed bed, and was singing as I remember the bird should, there was certainly no serious mimicry, as per Marsh Warblers. Much simpler are Magpies (Pica pica) which despite not being mentioned before in this report are not uncommon in Albania though never in the large numbers so characteristic of Britain. Also appearing in ones and two are Hooded Crows (Corvus corone cornix). Equally simple was the single Great Crested Grebe (Podiceps cristatus) swimming on the lagoon.

We slowly walked up to the sea, passing a military base that seemed to still be in use, though with apparently minimal levels of security. Like a good few places in Britain, Lezhe had been inadvertently protected by the military, who in Albania's autarchic phase had kept the local people away from what was seen as a strategically significant. The drier land here was full of Barn Swallows, with of course Nightingales and Cetti's Warblers singing away. But by now it was increasingly warm, so after a stop at yet another café, we headed back, past a slightly quieter landscape, disturbed only by an exceedingly active Zitting Cisticola, which continued on its bounding song-flight for at least twenty minutes in the heat of the day. A happy Mediterranean end to our time on the reserve.    


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