Have you ever thought about birding in Montenegro? Do you know where the country is? Or what you can find there? Zoran Popović of Birdlife Montenegro leads you on a journey of discovery to learn what makes this small country is so special for birders.
This diminutive, wildlife-rich country in southeast Europe is located in the western Balkans and on the Adriatic coast. As the name of the country suggests (Montenegro = Black Mountains), it is a place of high mountains and deep canyons, some of which are amongst the deepest in the world.
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It has long sandy beaches in the south and dense forests and snow-covered mountain peaks in the north. And it’s full of clear rivers and beautiful mountain lakes.
What is so Special about Montenegro?
Throughout history, Montenegro has always been positioned culturally somewhere between the East and the West. Over the centuries it was a place where many people of different backgrounds mixed and left their trace. It is a country with a very turbulent history, a country of rich tradition and home to a proud and welcoming people.
Photo Credit: © Marija Šoškić Popović, Alpine Choughs, Monticola
There aren’t many countries in the world where you can go for a hike on a snowy mountain top in the morning and then swim in a warm sea in the afternoon. And all this is somehow packed into a tiny area of only 13,812 km². With its population of just over 600,000, Montenegro fits right in the group of the smallest countries of Europe.
Now, if you are reading this article, there is a high chance you are into birding. Then, naturally, you are wondering if there are any birds of note in Montenegro. I can assure you that there are. As a matter of fact, 353 bird species have been recorded in the country so far.
Why Birding in Montenegro is Unforgettable
If you think about it, that bird species statistic means that in Montenegro you can find 65% of all the types of birds present in Europe. Montenegro has five regions designated as Important Bird and Biodiversity Areas (IBAs), and 33 potential Special Protection Areas (SPAs) under the European Directive on the Conservation of Wild Birds identified during the Natura 2000 Network project.
The density index of breeding species in Montenegro is 0.563, which is significantly above the Balkans overall average of 0.435. This is thanks to the amazing diversity of habitats found in the country, and also to the fact that Montenegro is located on one of the most important migration corridors for birds in Europe – the Adriatic Flyway. Millions of birds migrate from Europe to Africa and vice versa along this corridor.
Photo Credit: © Jure Novak, Black-winged Stilt, Monticola
There are many amazing locations for birding, some well-publicised but others less known, even to Montenegrins themselves. Whenever and wherever you go birding in Montenegro you will not leave disappointed.
Let’s give an example of what you can expect from a birdwatching holiday to Montenegro. Let’s say you land at Tivat Airport in the south of Montenegro and you decide to make a circular tour that will cover all the major birding areas in the country. Of course, the limits of time may mean you cannot visit everywhere in just the one trip, but this will tell you what to expect whether you go north, south, east or west and decide to turn it into several trips.
Travelling from North to South
So, let us start our birding journey through Montenegro…
Just a few kilometres from the airport you can visit Tivat salina, a small nature reserve. In spring and autumn, you can observe wader species such as Whimbrel, Redshank, Black-winged Stilt and Lapwing.
If you continue north from there you will leave the Adriatic coast behind and the road will take you through the karst fields of Dragalj and Grahovo, where you can find the Western Rock Nuthatch. A bit further and you are at Nikšićko polje (Nikšić karst field), the largest karst field in Montenegro.
At Lakes Krupac, Slano and Vrtac there are grasslands where, during migration season, you can see the Common Crane, Northern Lapwing, Ruffs and Wood Sandpiper. This area is also an important wintering site for Common Pochard and Coot.
Even further towards the north and you reach Durmitor National Park. This includes the Durmitor mountain massif and the canyons of the river Tara. Durmitor has numerous mountain peaks, of which 48 are over 2,000m high. The highest peak is Bobotov kuk, 2,525m above sea level.
Photo Credit: ©Jure Novak, European Roller, Monticola
Durmitor has 18 beautiful glacial lakes, called ‘mountain eyes’ by the locals. The largest and most famous one is the Crno jezero (Black Lake). The National Park has been on the UNESCO World Natural and Cultural Heritage List since 1980, and it has been an IBA since 2000.
Whether you decide to explore the magnificent heights of the Durmitor National Park on foot or go for a drive on some of the roads surrounding it, you will be repeatedly surprised by breathtaking views, scenes of unspoiled nature and authentic mountain villages.
In the woods you can search for Three-toed Woodpecker, Black Woodpecker, Song Thrush and Hazel Grouse, while on the open grassy plateaus you will find species such as Golden Eagle, Lesser Kestrel, Red-footed Falcon, Horned Lark, Water Pipit, Rock Thrush and Rock Partridge.
The climate of the area is typical of a high mountain area, with long and cold winters and relatively short and cool summers. This means that the birding season here starts later than it does in the southern parts of Montenegro where there is a warmer continental climate, but when it does begin, in the late spring, the north offers so much to enjoy.
East of Durmitor National Park
If you continue east of the National Park you will be passing through the deepest canyon in Europe. There are forests of black pine, with trees 400 years old and up to 45m tall. The river Tara with its emerald waters flows beneath.
Eventually, you reach Biogradska gora National Park. In 1878 this area was reclaimed from the Turks and became an integral part of Montenegro. Prince Nikola Petrović proclaimed the forests of Biogradska gora to be protected, making it one of the first protected areas in Europe.
This area, shaped by natural forces, is surrounded by deep river valleys and 2,000m high mountain peaks. It has seven mountain lakes, the largest and best-known of which is Biogradsko, located at 1,094m above sea level. Created when glaciers melted after the last Ice Age, it now sits in the heart of Biogradska gora, one of the few remaining patches of virgin forest in Europe. Here, while the mirror-like surface of the lake reflects all the beauty of the forest, you can hear and spot the White-backed Woodpecker, Grey-headed Woodpecker, Tawny Owl and Red-breasted Flycatcher.
Photo Credit: ©jure Novak, Pygmy Cormorant, Monticola
Further east you pass the mountain of Komovi and a Regional Park bordered by the Rivers Lim and Tara. Here there is diverse flora and fauna, clear mountain springs and creeks and high mountain peaks with charming mountain villages hidden in between. This is a place to look for woodpeckers – White-backed, Black and Grey-headed – Hazel Grouse, Ring Ouzel, Nuthatch and Dunnock in the beech and coniferous forests, as well as Rock Partridge, Alpine Chough, Rock Thrush, Mistle Thrush, Golden Eagle, Short-toed Eagle and Honey Buzzard on the open plains and beneath the high peaks.
Montenegro’s Youngest National Park – Prokletije
The Prokletije mountains run for 70km along the border between Montenegro and Albania. The name means Accursed Mountains in both the Montenegrin and Albanian languages. However, the name refers to untouched wilderness, inaccessible peaks, frightening cliffs, mysterious lakes and a hard life for locals, rather than any form of curse.
There are numerous high, jagged peaks in Prokletije, some of which are over 2,500m high. This is where you can find the highest peak in Montenegro, Zla Kolata, which is 2,534m above sea level. There are numerous glacial lakes in the Park, the biggest being Plavsko Lake. Many argue that the most beautiful is Lake Hridsko.
There are also a wealth of springs and other sources of drinking water as well as mountain ponds in the Park. The climate here is very similar to what you find in Durmitor, meaning that winters are very harsh and long and summers fresh and short.
Photo Credit: ©Bojan Zeković, Red-footed Falcon, Monticola
In the Park you have two options and I suggest you try to do both on your birding in Montenegro tour. First explore the higher parts where there are forests of Macedonian pine. There, you might have a chance to see Red Crossbill, Nutcracker, Crested Tit, Willow Tit and Ring Ouzel, and perhaps even briefly spot a Capercaillie.
After that, focus on the lower areas, such as Lake Plav. With its waters rich in fish as well as aquatic plants, the lake attracts species such as the Fieldfare, Mallard, Tufted Duck, Coot, Little Grebe, Bittern, Great Crested Grebe, Black-necked Grebe, Common Pochard, Common Teal and several species of herons and waders. Meanwhile, the wet meadows surrounding the lake are home to the Corn Crake.
Birding in Southern Montenegro
Now is the time to turn and head back south. Just before you reach Podgorica, the capital of Montenegro, the road will take you through the canyon of the River Cijevna, a Park of Nature and an IBA, where you can look for Golden Eagle, Eurasian Jackdaw, Alpine Swift, Alpine Chough, Western Rock Nuthatch, Sombre Tit, Subalpine Warbler and Golden Oriole.
Once you get to Podgorica, you must visit the Ćemovsko field, Montenegro’s biggest steppe habitat. Here you can see the Calandra Lark, Short-toed Lark, Tawny Pipit and Eurasian Stone Curlew. Red-footed Falcons, Lesser Kestrels, Montagu’s and Marsh Harriers and Meadow Pipits migrate over the Ćemovsko field and regularly stop there for rest and feeding, especially during spring migration.
Follow the River Morača further south of Podgorica and you will reach Skadar Lake, another National Park. Protected since 1983, it is also part of a RAMSAR network and another of Montenegro’s IBAs. It is a crypto depression, meaning that its bottom is below sea level while its surface is above.
Photo Credit: © Peter Sackl, Greater Flamingo, Monticola
It is the largest lake in the Balkans and, depending on the water level, it covers an area of between 370 sq km in summer and 540 sq km in winter. Mostly its depth is around 5m, although at its deepest point it drops to 60m. Two thirds of the lake belongs to Montenegro and one third to Albania.
With 281 recorded bird species, Lake Skadar is one of the most important sites for birds in Montenegro. It is home to the Dalmatian Pelican – the westernmost population of this species. The Glossy Ibis, Squacco Heron, Purple Heron, Whiskered Tern, Ferruginous Duck and Night Heron are only some of many species you can see on a boat trip, which is something you really shouldn’t miss. One of the biggest Pygmy Cormorants colonies in the world resides here, and it is not uncommon to see many thousands of them all in the one place.
Birdwatching Delights on the Adriatic Coast
Take some time to enjoy a few glasses of the famous red wine of Crmnica and a leisurely evening of traditional Montenegrin hospitality before you embark on short drive the next day to the Adriatic coast. There, you must visit Ulcinj salina – cherry on the cake of birdwatching Montenegro. The Ulcinj salina was created on the site of the former Zogaj lagoon.
As ‘zog’ means ‘bird’ in Albanian, this should give you a clue as to how important this area is for birds. More than 240 species have been recorded at the salina so date and on a walk between salt pans you can see Collared Pratincole, Little Tern, Kentish Plover, Black-winged Stilt, European Roller, Common Tern, Common Shelduck and Eurasian Stone Curlew.
Photo Credit: ©Marija Šoškić Popović, Ulcinj Salina, Monticola
The Ulcinj salina is also very important as a feeding station for birds that nest in the area that surrounds it. Birds such as Glossy Ibis, Cattle Egret, Spoonbill and Pygmy Cormorant.
From the salina you continue to Velika plaža (Long Beach), a 13km long stretch of sand with a belt of brackish marshes behind. Take a walk on the beach to see Common Tern, Ringed Plover, Grey Plover and Dunlin. It is not uncommon to see European Roller and Levant Sparrowhawk here, too.
Return Trip to Tivat
On the way back to the airport you can visit the famous olive groves at Valdanos, where you can hear all about traditional olive oil processing. You can also spend some time in the old town of Kotor, a UNESCO World Heritage Site with many churches and museums as well as excellent restaurants and bars.
Alternatively, explore Boka Bay a bit more, with its charming settlements such as the baroque town of Perast. Or, if you are a keen botanist, take the famous 25-hairpin road to Lovćen Mountain, enjoying lovely views and tasting traditional Montenegrin food and drinks on the way.
Lovćen is another National Park and its geographical position has given it the richness and diversity of plantlife for which it is most famous. Overlooking the Adriatic coast, Lovćen has an incredible mix of Mediterranean, continental and mountane climate and, because of that, it can boast of more than 1,300 plant species, including many endemics, rarities, medicinal and aromatic plants. For birders, Lovćen also has a very rich and complex ornithofauna. Over 200 species of birds nest here or visit the area on migration.
Photo Credit : ©Jure Novak, Alpine Accentor, Monticola
So there you are, at the end of one of the best birding journeys you will have ever had. At the moment when you are admiring a most amazing sunset over the Adriatic Sea, you won’t be able to stop yourself wondering why you have to fly back home so soon. This will be quickly followed by thoughts of when you might again be able to visit the wonderful birding place that is Montenegro.
Want to Travel to See Birds in Montenegro?
The specialist tour operators on Blue Sky Wildlife can offer all the guidance you need for a birding holiday to this fascinating country. For set departure or bespoke trips contact them direct or book through Blue Sky Wildlife for the best prices and local specialist advice.
Zoran Popović is the Expert Associate for Sustainable Development at the Center for Protection and Research of Birds, Birdlife Montenegro.