We both wanted a short break somewhere away from a rather wet Britain, and cheap flights from Bristol to Rijeka with EasyJet pointed us to Croatia. Birding information was scarce, but trip reports on www.birdtours.co.uk by Bob and Dora Swann and by Sander Bot were useful, as was the country page on Fatbirder. High summer was obviously not the ideal time to go, but we hoped we would still see some of the region’s specialities in a relaxed birding break.
Croatia is a very beautiful country. We were struck by how unspoilt it all is, even in the tourist zone along the coast, and by the marked contrasts between the areas we visited. To have such a wide variety of habitats in such a natural state is remarkable in a relatively small country, and made for a productive trip considering the time of year. Overall we recorded 122 species in five days; I had seven lifers and Stuart four. A week of more intensive birding in spring or autumn should easily improve on our species list.
Croatia is not yet a member of the EU, and the currency is the kuna (kn). The exchange rate is approximately 10kn to the pound and 7.5kn to the euro. Tourist hotels we stayed at on the coast were mostly in the range of £20-£25 per person per night B&B for a twin room: prices are quoted in either kuna or euros. The most expensive night was at the Hotel Plitvice within Plitvice Lakes NP at 720kn for the room, but it was convenient. Both on the coast and inland, so many houses offer rooms for the night that birders on a tighter budget would be able to find somewhere cheaper fairly easily and not too far away from other facilities – see the other trip reports cited for details of campsites etc. The guest house in Lonjsko Polje was only 150kn each B&B – even including lunch, evening meal and a few beers the total was little more than 300kn each.
Restaurant prices were reasonable - usually about 80-120kn for a main course. In Starigrad we ate at the Restaurant Ante both nights and both food and service were excellent. Daytime drinks and snacks were pretty cheap.
Car hire was through Holiday Autos – about £130 for a Ford Fiesta for five days. Petrol is a little cheaper than Britain at 8kn (£0.80) a litre for unleaded. Petrol stations are not as frequent as in some other countries, and some smaller ones don’t take credit cards either, so it’s worth taking the opportunity to fill up before it becomes necessary. It’s not a large country though, and driving distances between sites are reasonable. Motorways run on a toll system – for a route similar to ours budget 100-150kn to cover these (including keeping 30kn back for the toll bridge to return to Krk island for Rijeka airport). Generally I found the standard of driving good and courteous. As always a decent road map was useful, though major towns and national parks were well signposted. Other points to note: it’s a legal requirement to have dipped headlights on at all times when driving, and the cops are hot on speeding, with regular radar traps, especially on main routes.
Some knowledge of German can be useful, as most Croats speak it and Germans make up the bulk of the tourist trade, but English is widely spoken, especially in the tourist areas.
Rock Partridge stakeout
This site, mentioned in other trip reports, is just outside Paklenica National Park. At the harbour in Starigrad Paklenica take the turn inland signposted to Veliko Rujno and follow this uphill through the houses, past the mast and old tip and past a settlement with an old phone booth by the road, over a small ramp. Approximately 3km from Starigrad, park at a pull-in on the right overlooking some ruined buildings. The partridges are probably in many places in this area, but this is where we and previous groups have had success. The ‘garden’ area by the junction at the top of the slope there is also worth some time.
Paklenica National Park
We only visited Mala Paklenica, the smaller of the two gorges in the park, and didn’t get quite as far as the entrance to the gorge itself. Striking scenery, and good habitat for rock-loving species all along, with pinewoods and some scrub near the car park. Access (signposted) is along a rough track from the village of Seline, just south of Starigrad Paklenica. Entrance fee was 30kn - it’s more for the larger gorge, Veliko Paklenica, which is more popular and more disturbed.
Lake Vrana (Vransko jezero) Nature Park
South of Zadar, this is Croatia’s largest natural lake, just inland from the coast. A nature park with free access is at the northwest end, accessible off the main road by the town of Pakostane. The large reedbed is the principal interest here and can be viewed from by the campground, or you can get closer by parking by a bridge less than 1km past the main entrance and walking down a straight dirt track to the water’s edge.
Plitvice Lakes (Plitvicka jezera) National Park
A World Heritage site, and a truly beautiful place, with 16 impossibly turquoise lakes and numerous smaller, crystal-clear pools dammed naturally by tufa and linked by small waterfalls, all surrounded by pristine mature mixed forest. The entrance fee is quite high (110kn per day in summer, lower at other seasons), but includes use of frequent bus and ferry services to get you around. Try to avoid weekends, as the park gets very busy indeed. For birding, park at entrance 2, take the bus from St2 to St4, get off the busy boardwalks and walk the almost deserted trails leading through the forests around the upper lakes. An hour or so’s circular walk from St3 is less good for birding, but wonderful all the same – take a camera.
Lonjsko Polje Nature Park
A seasonally flooded area of oxbow lakes (of various ages), pastures and woodland between the Sava and Lonja rivers, about 100km southeast of Zagreb, this is a Ramsar site, and it reminded us in some ways of the Somerset Levels back home. Being well away from the coast, the area is little visited by tourists, but deserves more attention for its cultural heritage as well as its abundant wildlife. Tourist infrastructure is largely lacking, but there are guesthouses in some of the villages. Facilities are fairly basic, but the food is plentiful and home-cooked, the welcome very friendly, and the whole experience far more interesting and enlightening than any tourist hotel.
The visitor centre is in Cigoc, and like at least half the houses in the village it has a pair of White Storks nesting on the roof. Maps, leaflets and advice are freely available (including in English) from the visitor centre; tickets for the park cost only 25kn, are valid 3 days, and allow access to all the nature trails and some cultural exhibits. A hidden gem of a place.
Crna Mlaka fishponds
A nature reserve and Ramsar site accessed from the Jastrebarsko motorway exit west of Zagreb (turn left immediately after the toll plaza and drive about 5km along a largely gravel track to the entrance), with a good selection of waterbirds. Bob and Dora Swann got thrown out of here in October 2006 – the owner told them visiting was by organised groups only. We parked outside the entrance, made only a short visit (about an hour) birding from the road, and encountered no such problems. A good pond can be scoped from the bridge at the entrance anyway. To access the forest (see the Swanns’ report) park by the barrier across the track running straight on at a sharp left-hand bend as you are approaching the fishponds and walk down.
Itinerary at a glance
28 June Arrive Rijeka airport, drive to Starigrad Paklenica, Rock Partridge site pm
29 June Rock Partridge site and Paklenica NP am, Lake Vrana pm
30 June Plitvice Lakes
1 July Plitvice Lakes early am, Lonjsko Polje (Cigoc, Murzilovcica, Krapje Dol) pm
2 July Lonjsko Polje (Murzilovcica, Cigoc) am, Crna Mlaka pm
3 July casual birding Dramalj and Krk before late am flight back to Bristol
Day by day
Landing at Rijeka airport on Krk island a little before 1100, within the hour we were on the way down the E65 coast road. The 180km to Starigrad Paklenica took a little over 3 hours, but we were taking it easy, stopping occasionally for birds or just to enjoy the scenery. (NB: you pass another town called Starigrad about halfway.) Best birds on the way were a Short-toed Eagle near Crkvenica and 2 Red-rumped Swallows round the church in one of the villages, both the only ones we saw on the trip.
After booking into the 3-star Hotel Vicko for two nights and relaxing for a bit, at 1630 we headed for the Rock Partridge stakeout 3km along the minor road to Veliko Rujno. This is one of very few roads running up into the coastal range and thus giving easy access to the partridge’s favoured habitat. On a hot day it was unfortunately very quiet, with the best birds being Alpine Swift, Blue Rock Thrush, Sardinian Warbler and Hawfinch.
Up the Veliko Rujno road again early, arriving at the stakeout spot before 0530. A lot more activity this time, including good flight views of a covey of 4 Rock Partridges which flushed from above the road about two-thirds of the way up the slope towards the junction. Three hours later we had put together a reasonable species list, including Sombre Tit, Eastern Orphean Warbler, several Nightingales and Red-backed Shrikes, two (Eastern) Black-eared Wheatears, two Blue Rock Thrushes and at least 4 Golden Orioles.
After breakfast we headed to Mala Paklenica. It was again hot, but after paying our 30kn entrance fee, we walked nearly to the entrance to the gorge – to go further would have meant a clamber up a steep bank and we baulked at that, given the general lack of birds in the heat. We did get decent views of Western Rock Nuthatch, though, plus a couple of Crag Martins and an array of interesting butterflies and cicadas.
At noon we headed further south, and arrived at Lake Vrana, south of Zadar, just after 1300. A thorough search of the lake off the campground, and the area of trees around the car park, gave several new birds, chief of which was Pygmy Cormorant, a lifer for both of us. A constant stream of these were flying to and from the reedbeds, though mostly distantly. Other notables included 2 Black-winged Stilts, a few Whiskered Terns, a rather unexpected Black Tern, Serins, a Zitting Cisticola, a Great Reed Warbler, a few Purple Herons and a Marsh Harrier.
Later we drove a short distance to the bridge over the canal, parked by the bridge and walked down the straight track (the one that curves to the right leads to a ringing station, interesting but presumably not intended for uninvited public access). Along the straight track the density of Great Reed Warblers is amazing (as is their general invisibility even at very close range). Many of the same species seen from the campground were seen again, but much closer in some cases, including good perched views of Pygmy Cormorant. Extras included 2 Squacco Herons, Cetti’s Warbler and, scanning the wires back at the bridge, 4 Bee-eaters and several Corn Buntings.
We had got most of our main target species along the coast the day before, so we opted for an earlyish breakfast before heading off inland. A brief stop to study a flock of 100+ Yellow-legged Gulls in a small inlet by the village of Modric (between Starigrad and the Zadar-Zagreb motorway) pulled in a few new species, including Black-headed Bunting and Spanish Sparrow. The 95km to Plitvice Lakes took about 1.5 hours and we were there for 1000. On the journey the change from the harsh coastal scenery was stark – now were in a land of densely forested slopes and lush high plains, and a few commoner birds made their first appearances here (eg Buzzard and Magpie).
Once in Plitvice Lakes NP, working out a plan and waiting for a bus to St4 took some time, so it was 1100 before we found a suitable side-trail on which to get away from the hordes of Saturday visitors. This was the trail which runs along above the north side of Ciganovac lake, and it proved productive in thankfully overcast and cooler conditions. In a couple of hours a reasonable selection of species included Black, Grey-headed and Great Spotted Woodpeckers, Subalpine Warblers, Spotted Flycatcher and Marsh Tit.
After a bite to eat at the café at St4 we headed back on the bus and booked into the two-star Hotel Plitvice, right by park entrance 2. After a siesta we headed to the other entrance, but it was heaving with people and there were no side-trails to get away on, so after some souvenir shopping we headed back to the hotel. Stuart elected to remain there, but I headed out to St3 and did a circular walk round a wonderland of small waterfalls and pools below Galovac lake. I didn’t see many birds, but it was a special experience.
With the remaining target species in the area difficult to find at the best of times, we decided we wouldn’t spend another 110kn going back into the main park this morning. Instead I did an early morning walk along the park road heading towards the village of Mukinje which got me in amongst some tall beech trees and produced a pleasant selection of commoner birds: best were Grey-headed Woodpecker and Hawfinch.
After breakfast we headed off on a 130km journey cross-country towards Sisak, which took about 3 hours as we stopped occasionally to check out roadside birds. Another 20km further on we arrived in Lonjsko Polje at noon, picked up our entrance tickets and much information at the visitor centre in Cigoc, and enjoyed close-up views of nesting White Storks. A single Black Stork circled overhead too. We moved on to the next village, Muzilovcica, and booked into Turizam Ravlic, a family-run guesthouse. After a delicious cold selection for lunch, Stuart opted for another siesta while I went for a walk along the track leading to one of the main nature trails, seeing another range of relatively common species, including abundant Tree Sparrows and a large House Martin colony in the village.
Late afternoon we drove the 20km or so to the old oxbow lake (now a reedbed) at Krapje Dol, where a great selection of birds included a fine adult White-tailed Eagle circling overhead, several Spoonbills (the area holds 10% of the European population), Purple and Night Herons, singing Savi’s Warblers, a female Collared Flycatcher, and numerous Golden Orioles and Red-backed Shrikes. After a delicious home-cooked evening meal we had a very interesting chat with the son of the family, who not only runs the farm but is also trying to build up the tourist business. His vision and commitment to the values of the park deserve success.
Before breakfast we drove down the track from Muzilovcica to the flood defence dyke and scanned the pasturelands. No joy with the hoped-for Lesser Spotted Eagle, but birds noted included Black and White Storks, a male Ashy-headed (Yellow) Wagtail feeding fledged young, Corn Bunting, Black Redstart and Great White Egret.
After breakfast I investigated the woodland trail at Cigoc, while Stuart wandered through the village. He saw another adult White-tailed Eagle, while I contented myself with another selection of woodland birds, including Grey-headed Woodpecker (but still no conclusive sightings of Middle Spotted, my main target). Late morning we drove the Cigoc track to the dyke and scanned for raptors from the start of the trail, but with no joy apart from flushing an immature White-tailed Eagle soon after arriving.
At noon we left Lonjsko Polje and headed north and west on the motorway, skirting Zagreb; best bird on the journey was a Black Kite circling over some services near Ivanic. We arrived at Crna Mlaka at about 1400 and birded the first few ponds along the road. A good range of species seen included Ferruginous Ducks, a Red-crested Pochard, Common and Whiskered Terns, Great White Egrets, a Goshawk and more Black Kites. The forest track was quiet, unsurprisingly given the time of day, so at 1600 we set off on the two hour drive west to the coast and booked into the two-star Hotel Riviera in Dramalj, just north of Crkvenica.
An early morning scan off Dramalj failed yet again to produce any straggling inshore Yelkouan Shearwaters. After a leisurely breakfast we headed back to Krk island, where a brief stop at a parking area just before the airport turnoff produced some last classic Mediterranean birds: Blue Rock Thrush, (Eastern) Black-eared Wheatear and Cirl Bunting. At 0945 we headed to the airport for the 1125 flight home.
The length of this trip was dictated by work commitments, but otherwise could have been extended by a couple of days at relatively little extra cost. There are a number of possible ways in which we could have used those extra days. I would suggest as possibilities:
• another morning or full day on the coast, trying to do more lowland maquis;
• perhaps some time in the high plains for grassland/open country species;
• another day at Plitvice Lakes (preferably a weekday), giving time to get well off the tourist trails earlier in the day (though the park does not open until 0730 and the buses don’t start until 0800, so being around the upper lakes at dawn is unfortunately out);
• an extra day or half-day in Lonjsko Polje, to allow for proper exploration of the trails; or
Jeremy Barker (see his Austria/Croatia trip report from 2003 on Surfbirds) visited Vis island well to the south of where we went; the ferry times require an overnight stop on the island, but he did get both Yelkouan and Cory’s Shearwaters as well as Eleonora’s Falcons, which breed there. It seems likely that to get the shearwaters (particularly Yelkouan) you have to get to view the open sea from the outer side of the long islands that make the Dalmatian coast a feature in geography textbooks. An alternative may be to visit the Istria peninsula in the north and seawatch from somewhere in the Rovinj/Pula area.
One thing that we found was that there were few places on most roads (and especially main ones) to just pull up on the side and explore a good-looking area on foot. For example, the forests around Plitvice Lakes must contain such as Hazel Grouse and various owls, but there did not seem to be anywhere other than the park where you could realistically look. This may partly be because away from known tourist areas there is still a very small risk of unexploded landmines from the ‘homeland war’, as it is called. Others have found access to areas of maquis on the coast, though, and with time it may be possible to find more good sites away from the national parks.
I am sure any birder would enjoy a trip to Croatia, whether combined with other countries or as a separate trip, and whether as an intensive birding holiday or a relaxed break with mixed interests,. After the war tourists have returned, but they would like more, and the sheer beauty of the country deserves our attention.
1. Little Grebe – Crna Mlaka
2. Great Crested Grebe – Lake Vrana and Crna Mlaka
3. Great Cormorant – one, Lonjsko Polje (much larger numbers in winter)
4. Shag – 5 along the coast road on day 1
5. Pygmy Cormorant – 50+, Lake Vrana
6. Grey Heron – several, Plitvice Lakes and Lonjsko Polje
7. Purple Heron – several at Lake Vrana and Lonjsko Polje (Krapje Dol)
8. Great White Egret – ones and twos at Lake Vrana, Lonjsko Polje and Crna Mlaka
9. Little Egret – a few in Lonjsko Polje
10. Squacco Heron – 2, Lake Vrana
11. Black-crowned Night Heron – about 5, Lonjsko Polje (mostly at Krapje Dol)
12. Black Stork – 4 flyover singles in Lonjsko Polje
13. White Stork – common and very easily seen in Lonjsko Polje
14. Spoonbill – 15, Krapje Dol (Lonjsko Polje); probably many more came in after we left
15. Mute Swan – Lonjsko Polje and Crna Mlaka
16. Eurasian Teal – 6, Crna Mlaka
17. Mallard – a few at wetland sites
18. Ferruginous Duck – common at Crna Mlaka
19. Common Pochard – 1 fem, Crna Mlaka
20. Red-crested Pochard – 1 fem, Crna Mlaka
21. Black Kite – 1 over the motorway near Ivanic, then at least 4 at Crna Mlaka
22. Marsh Harrier – 1 fem, Lake Vrana
23. Goshawk – 1 imm, Crna Mlaka
24. Buzzard – seen regularly in inland areas
25. Short-toed Eagle – one from the road near Crkvenica on day 1
26. White-tailed Eagle – 3 in Lonjsko Polje
27. Kestrel – just the one, in Mala Paklenica
28. Hobby – one, Lonjsko Polje
29. Rock Partridge – 4 at the stakeout site above Starigrad Paklenica
30. Common Pheasant – heard at Krapje Dol (Lonjsko Polje)
31. Moorhen – a few at wetland sites
32. Eurasian Coot – common at Crna Mlaka
33. Black-winged Stilt – 2, Lake Vrana
34. Common Sandpiper – 2, Modric inlet
35. Yellow-legged Gull – common on the coast
36. Black-headed Gull – small numbers, Lake Vrana and Crna Mlaka
37. Common Tern – at least 4, Crna Mlaka
38. Black Tern – 1 moulting adult, Lake Vrana, was a little unexpected
39. Whiskered Tern – 3+, Lake Vrana, and several at Crna Mlaka
40. Rock Dove – regular, and most appeared to be wild-type
41. Woodpigeon – a few inland
42. Turtle Dove – common everywhere
43. Collared Dove – regular in towns and villages
44. Common Cuckoo – one heard, Plitvice Lakes
45. Tawny Owl – one heard at Turizam Ravlic (Lonjsko Polje)
46. Alpine Swift – only on day 1; one on Krk island and 3 at the partridge stakeout
47. Common Swift – common; no definite Pallid Swifts were seen
48. Kingfisher – a few, Lonjsko Polje
49. Bee-eater – 4, Lake Vrana
50. Great Spotted Woodpecker – the commonest woodpecker
51. Green Woodpecker – one heard, Lonjsko Polje
52. Grey-headed Woodpecker – 3 at Plitvice Lakes and 1 at Cigoc (Lonjsko Polje)
53. Black Woodpecker – 1, Plitvice Lakes
54. Skylark – 1, Cigoc pasture trail (Lonjsko Polje)
55. Sand Martin – 1, Muzilovcica (Lonjsko Polje)
56. Crag Martin – 2, Mala Paklenica
57. Barn Swallow - common
58. House Martin – common in towns and villages
59. Red-rumped Swallow – 2 round a village church along the coast road on day 1
60. White Wagtail - common
61. Yellow (Ashy-headed) Wagtail – male feeding juvs, Muzilovcica trail (Lonjsko Polje)
62. Grey Wagtail – two or three, Plitvice Lakes
63. Tree Pipit – 2, Plitvice Lakes
64. Firecrest – one heard, Cigoc (Lonjsko Polje)
65. Wren - common
66. Blue Rock Thrush – a few seen in suitable habitat at various sites along the coast
67. Blackbird - common
68. Song Thrush – common inland
69. Mistle Thrush – 2, Plitvice Lakes
70. Zitting Cisticola – at least 3, Lake Vrana
71. Cetti’s Warbler – Lake Vrana
72. Savi’s Warbler – at least 3 heard, Krapje Dol (Lonjsko Polje)
73. Reed Warbler – one heard, Lake Vrana
74. Great Reed Warbler – one seen, many heard, Lake Vrana; one heard, Lonjsko Polje
75. Chiffchaff – a few inland
76. Blackcap – most noticeable at Plitvice Lakes and Lonjsko Polje
77. Whitethroat – 2, Lake Vrana
78. Lesser Whitethroat - one at the partridge stakeout above Starigrad Paklenica
79. Garden Warbler – one heard, Lonjsko Polje
80. Eastern Orphean Warbler – one at the partridge stakeout above Starigrad Paklenica
81. Sardinian Warbler – fairly common along the coastal strip
82. Subalpine Warbler – a family party, Plitvice Lakes
83. Spotted Flycatcher – fairly common
84. Collared Flycatcher – a female at Krapje Dol (Lonjsko Polje)
85. Robin – common inland
86. Nightingale – vocal and obvious around the junction above Starigrad Paklenica
87. Black Redstart – one, Lonjsko Polje
88. Stonechat – Lonjsko Polje
89. (Eastern) Black-eared Wheatear – several seen at sites along the coast
90. Long-tailed Tit – a family party, Muzilovcica (Lonjsko Polje)
91. Sombre Tit – one, at the partridge stakeout
92. Marsh Tit – fairly common in woodland
93. Coal Tit – one family party, Plitvice Lakes
94. Great Tit - common
95. Blue Tit – fairly common
96. Nuthatch – common at Plitvice Lakes
97. Western Rock Nuthatch – one showed well, if distantly, at Mala Paklenica
98. Golden Oriole - common
99. Red-backed Shrike – very common
100. Woodchat Shrike – one, Lake Vrana
101. Jay – odd ones inland
102. Magpie – odd ones inland
103. Jackdaw - one, Lake Vrana
104. Rook – one small group near Lake Vrana
105. Hooded Crow - common
106. Raven – common
107. Starling – common, but only seen inland
108. Spanish Sparrow – a cracking male at Modric inlet; others no doubt overlooked
109. House Sparrow – common in towns and villages
110. Tree Sparrow – abundant in Lonjsko Polje
111. Chaffinch - common
112. Greenfinch - common
113. Goldfinch – fairly common
114. Linnet – a pair at Modric inlet
115. Serin – fairly common; good views at Lake Vrana and in Lonjsko Polje
116. Bullfinch – a pair, Plitvice Lakes
117. Hawfinch – a few each at the partridge stakeout and at Plitvice Lakes
118. Cirl Bunting – a few along the coastal strip
119. Yellowhammer – Lonjsko Polje
120. Black-headed Bunting – single males at Modric inlet and in Lonjsko Polje
121. Reed Bunting – Lonjsko Polje
122. Corn Bunting – 10, Lake Vrana; also one in Lonjsko Polje