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A Report from

Croatia 9th – 15th October 2006,

Bob and Dora Swann

I had been planning a trip to Croatia for a while, in the hope that we might find Rock Partridge, one of the more elusive Western Palearctic species. We organised the trip ourselves using the internet.  I booked the hotels using Adriatica Net. This was an easy to use website and the company was very efficient. We flew out by Easyjet from Luton to Rijeka. We decided to spent the first few days in Starigrad Paklenica in northern Dalmatia, where we booked into Hotel Vicko a nice three star hotel (though they upgraded us into the neighbouring four star Villa Vicko). For the rest of the holiday we booked into Hotel Marina, another four star hotel, further north in Selce in Kvarner. Both hotels were excellent and very reasonably priced (being out of season). We went for half board and the food was good. I used Holiday Autos to book a car prior to our departure. It cost £105 for the week and we collected it at Rijeka airport.

Information on birding sites in Croatia is a bit scarce, but I found two good bird trip reports on the net. One from July 2003 by Kasper Hendriks and Rob van Bemmelen and the other from July 2005 by Sander Bot.

9th October. Arrived Rijeka about 2.00pm local time. Collected the car and began the long 150km drive down the main E65 coast road. The road was quite good and it took us just over 3 hours to cover the 150km to Starigrad Paklenica. The scenery en-route was lovely, but we did not see many birds, despite a couple of stops.

Settled into our rooms and had a couple of beers, on the balcony, as we watched the sunset over Pag Island.

10th October. I got up at 6.30am as I wanted to be at the partridge site at first light. At the harbour I turned left following the signs to Veliko Runjo. This took me up a steep hillside, past a rubbish dump and up to a hamlet. I continued following the signs for Veliko Runjo, for about another kilometre, and eventually stopped where a track went down to some ruined cottages. I walked slowly up the road scanning the hillsides and rocks for the partridges. The slopes were still in the shade and there was no sign of the birds. Lots of European Robins, Blackbirds and a few Wrens in the scrub but little else. I walked back down the road and down the track to the overgrown fields and orchards by the ruined houses. Blackcaps and Chiffchaffs were feeding in the bushes and a flock of Long-tailed Tits moved through. In the overgrown field I disturbed a Common Redstart, a pair of Dunnock, a European Serin and a few Rock Buntings. Finally a Common Raven flew overhead. Just as the sun was coming up on the slopes I had to leave to head back to the hotel for breakfast with Dora. On the way down I stopped briefly by the dump, where by the roadside I found a Blue Rock Thrush, a Stonechat and lots of White Wagtails.

After breakfast we drove up to the main entrance of the Paklenica National Park. We paid our 30Kuna each entrance fee and drove up to the top car park, getting nice views of a red squirrel by the side of the road. The car park was busy with climbers and walkers, as we started walking up the track through the spectacular gorge. Lots of Rock Doves and also a couple of Sparrow Hawk. As we got higher the valley widened out a bit, and we had good views of a pair of Rock Bunting, a Western Rock Nuthatch trilling away and 4 Chamois. Higher still we entered mature woodland. Birds were difficult to spot, but we encountered Blue Tit, Marsh Tit, Eurasian Nuthatch and along the river Grey Wagtail. We walked up to the Paklenica Lodge, it took over two and a half hours to cover the 8km. After our picnic lunch we headed back down, passing more walkers, but not seeing very much. It was, however, a lovely scenic walk.

We decided to return to the partridge spot. I parked the car at the same place and we walked up the road to the second layby on the right (just before the junction). We heard the birds call somewhere on the hill slope above us, on the north side of the road, but could not see them. Suddenly a flock of 9 Rock Partridge appeared and flew along the slope, above the road and landed in amongst boulders and bushes. We walked back down the road, scanning the hillside above us. Eventually Dora spotted two of them sitting out on a rock. We got excellent views, and they were later joined by another two. They sat out on the rocks, sunning themselves for quite a while, before slinking off. Elated we headed back down. On the hillside just below the dump we had a Common Buzzard, then in the bushes more Rock Buntings and a male Cirl Bunting. Back to the hotel for some celebratory beers and another fine sunset over Pag.

11th October. We decided to head south today, so after breakfast set off down the E65. At the southern end of the Velebitski Kanal at Mydric was a small flock of duck by the roadside comprising 50+ Mallard, 3 Pintail, a Common Teal and a pair of Common Pochard. Just before Gorni Policnic the road crossed a reedy channel. Sitting out on posts were two fine Pygmy Cormorants. We had excellent views of them sunning themselves, then fishing. We also had Moorhen and a Green Sandpiper in the channel and in the adjacent bushes, lots of Chiffchaff and a Song Thrush.

We continued down through Zadar, to Pakostane. Here we turned of right following the signs to Vrana. The road took us along to the Park Prirode near the northern end of Vransko Jezera, a huge lake. Out on the water were rafts of thousands of Common Coot. With them were a few Great Crested Grebes and two Black-necked Grebe. In the shallows were several Little Grebe. Small groups of ducks, were mostly Mallard or Common Pochard, but also 6 Ferruginous Duck, a few Common Teal and 2 Eurasian Wigeon. Also on the water were a few hundred Pygmy Cormorant, constantly flying back and fro from the reeds and the shore out to the water where they would feed in a frenzied flock, before returning back towards the shore. We got superb views of them. We also had a single Great Cormorant, along with large flocks of Yellow-legged Gull and Black-headed Gull out on the water and a juvenile Whiskered Tern. The lake is bounded by reeds, where we had several Grey Heron, a Reed Warbler, calling Water Rail, and overhead a Marsh Harrier. Along the shore were a few Common Kingfisher and at least 3 Little Egret.

We had our picnic lunch by the pines in the park on the lakeshore, watching the Jays feeding on the pine cones. The wood also held Black-billed Magpies, Collared Dove, lots of Chaffinch and gave us excellent views of a pair of Firecrest. Above us swirled a large flock of Hooded Crows and Jackdaws.

We then drove a bit further along the road and stopped just before a bridge. From here we followed a gravel road to the right, which took us to the bird ringing station (all the nets were furled) and observation tower. Over the reeds were huge flocks of Common Starling, which occasionally rose high into the sky, along with gulls and a late Swift, where they appeared to be feeding on flying insects.  We crossed a small wooden bridge

and followed a track that took us down to the shore. Here we had a Dunlin, a Common Redshank, and two Ruff. In the reeds I had good views of a Cetti’s Warbler, whilst the lakeside bushes held flocks of Goldfinch and Common Linnet. Raptors overhead comprised two Sparrow Hawk and a Common Buzzard. This whole area was a splendid birding site.

We began to head back north. After Zadar at Policnik we turned off left to Poljica Brig. We then turned right and drove along till the turning into Ljubac. In the village we took the first left and followed it straight down towards the shore. Just before the ‘new’ harbour a track led off left. We followed it till we reached some agricultural land. I wandered out through the fields. Here I flushed a wee flock of 6 Grey Partridge, plus 2 Meadow Pipit and a Tree Pipit. In the adjacent bushes was a large flock of Spanish Sparrows, with Common Linnet, European Serin and 3 Corn Bunting. I walked out till I reached a tidal creek, which I followed down to the shore. The tide was out exposing a small area of mud flat. Feeding here were 9 Grey Plover, 3 Curlew, a Dunlin, a Common Redshank and a Common Sandpiper. Along the edge of the shore I disturbed two Common Snipe and 3 Common Kingfisher. Out in the water were a Mallard, a Common Teal and two Pintail. Finally on the beach a large roost of Yellow-legged Gulls.

We headed back through the village, onto the main road till we hit the Pag road, which we followed south back down the peninsular. We stopped opposite Starigrad Paklenica to take some photos. Here we had a Crested Lark, singing from overhead telegraph wires. The only one we saw on the entire trip. We got back to the hotel to watch the sunset, after an excellent days birding.

12th October. Our final day at Paklenica. After breakfast and checking out of the hotel, we returned to the partridge site, arriving just before 9am as the sun was hitting the rocky slopes. We went back up to the layby just before the road junction. Almost immediately we heard birds calling on the slope on the south side of the road. Eventually on one of the rocky areas, just below the hilltop with the flag, we spotted four Rock Partridges sitting sunning themselves on a rock. We must have watched them for about 30minutes before they walked off out of sight.

We drove further up the road and at the coll, where you suddenly see Starigrad Paklenica below you and the road takes a sharp bend to the left, we stopped at a small layby to admire the view. We immediately flushed another four Rock Partridge from the slope just below the layby. We also had a female Black Redstart and another Western Rock Nuthatch, calling from a dead bush. We drove on to the car park at the end of the road where we had more Western Rock Nuthatch, Rock Buntings and European Serins.

We then went back to Starigrad Paklenica and to Seline. Here we followed the track sign posted to Mala Paklenica, seeing a cock Common Pheasant as we drove up to the car park. We walked through the pine wood where we found a pair of Sombre Tit, along with a pair of Marsh Tit, a Firecrest and a few Chiffchaffs. After a picnic lunch, we headed back to the car and then began the long drive north to Selce. It took us just over two hours.

13th October. Our first full day in the north and we drove 50km north to Risnjak National Park. It was well sign posted from the main road north of Crikvenica. We arrived at the village of Crni Lug and drove down to the park entrance. We paid our 30kuna entry fees and followed the ‘educational trail’ through the forest. The forest was composed of a mixture of beech trees and immense fir trees. Unfortunately there was no beech mast and the cone crop on the firs appeared poor as well. This meant bird numbers were probably a lot lower than in a good autumn. It was also quite difficult to spot the birds in amongst the foliage of the tall trees. With perseverance we did locate at least 3 Grey-headed Woodpeckers, Coal Tit, Crested Tit, Goldcrest along with Wren, European Robin, Blackbird and Chaffinch. Near the park entrance we found a flock of Mistle Thrush feeding on berries in a rowan tree, along with two Redwing and a Bullfinch. It was a lovely scenic area, especially with the trees in their autumn colours.

14th October. We decided to go inland to the fish ponds at Crna Mlaka, near Zagreb. Both trip reports I had read spoke very highly of them. We drove north to get onto the toll motorway at junction 6 and then headed east to the Jastrebarsko junction. We came off the motorway, paid our 41kuna (c£4) toll, then took the first road on the left. This eventually became a gravel track and we followed it down through the forest till the signs for Crna Mlaka, where we turned left to reach the car park at the entrance. As you go through the entrance you follow the road that bends to the left and this takes you to a large fish pond. It held a lot of birds: Great Crested Grebe, Little Grebe, Common Coot, 50+ Mute Swan, lots of Common Pochard and Ferruginous Duck, a drake Tufted Duck, some Mallard and 3 Eurasian Wigeon. Lots of Grey Heron and at least 10 Great White Egret. There were masses of Great Cormorant, with at least 70 perched in one large tree. We also had superb views of an adult White-tailed Eagle flying low along the edge of the pond. Unfortunately before we could get much further we were accosted by the owner and were told access was forbidden and asked to leave. We tried to persuade him otherwise, but he was adamant that we had to go. He said that only organised bird groups were allowed on the site. This was a great shame, considering the distance we had come, over 150km, from Selce.

We stayed by the bridge at the entrance gate for a while, as you could just glimpse the pond from here. We saw a few Common Kingfisher in the ditches, and a Mistle Thrush and a large flock of Tree Sparrow in the adjacent trees and bushes. We then went to look at the superb area of deciduous forest that runs south from the Crna Mlaka track. Here we had a few Great Spotted Woodpecker, 3 Middle Spotted Woodpecker, lots of Jays, Eurasian Nuthatch, Marsh, Blue, Great and Long-tailed Tits and a Short-toed Treecreeper. Overhead raptors comprised a pair of Common Buzzard, Sparrow Hawk, an adult Goshawk and an immature White-tailed Eagle. Two Roe Deer crossed the track in front of us.

Slightly disappointed that we had not been able to explore the whole fish pond area we began our long journey back to Selce. I suspect, however, that we had managed to see a good range of the species present at this site.

15th October. A non-birding day. We drove through Rijeka to Opatija. Here we walked along the Lungomare, the coastal walk via Icici and Ika to Lovran. Although the path bounded the lush gardens of grand hotels and villas, we did not see many birds, bar a few Jays, Long-tailed, Great and Blue Tits, European Robins and Blackbirds. It was, however, a nice walk – 16km in total, there and back.

16th October. Our final day. We checked out of the hotel and were on the road by 8am, heading north. We crossed the toll bridge (30kuna) onto Krk Island and took the main road towards Krk. At Ulica Jezero (by a junction where signs say “Njivice” and “paintball”), there was a reed fringed lake. At the junction we turned left down a track and immediately on the left was some open ground just hoaching with birds. Flocks of Goldfinch, with European Serin, Common Linnet, Greenfinch, Chaffinch and at least 5 splendid Hawfinch all feeding on weed seeds. Also a nice group of seven Woodlark. Flitting about between bushes I spotted a Wryneck. By a pile of manure were a pair of Black Redstart, some Dunnock and lots of White Wagtails. I walked further along the track, bounding the lake. On the roadside shrubs were lots of Stonechat, Blackcap, Chiffchaff and 3 Penduline Tits. A Stock Dove flew overhead.

I could not see the actual lake so we drove further south along the main road. Through the roadside bushes I got a glimpse of the lake, but it appeared fairly birdless. There is a road going off the main road down to it but we were turned back at a gate. We continued south and stopped at some interesting looking abandoned agricultural land just by a roadside garden centre. The berry bearing bushes were full of Blackcap, Chiffchaff, Blackbird and Song Thrush. Also got good views of Cirl Bunting.

We were running out of time, so retraced our route back north to the airport and returned the hired car having done almost 1200km. After we checked in I wandered round the scrub and trees outside the airport terminal. Located another female Black Redstart, a Goldcrest in the pines and more Cirl Buntings. As we waited in the terminal for the plane we spotted a Sparrow Hawk, two Common Raven and hovering over the runways the only Common Kestrel of the entire trip.

We had had a super holiday, doing lots of walking and birding and had enjoyed Croatia’s wonderful scenery. Overall we saw 102 different species, including the Rock Partridge. The Starigrad Paklenica site must be one of the most reliable to see this species. October is probably not the best time to go to Croatia as the bulk of the summer visitors have departed. The advantage is you get off season prices, the resorts are nice and quiet and the autumn colours in the forest are at their best.

Bob Swann


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