When I start talking to people about Serbia, the images that most people conjure up in their minds is the vision of the devastating atrocities that occurred during the Yugoslav Wars of the nineties. I, too had the same thoughts when I was originally invited to visit Serbia’s capital, Belgrade in September 2009. I was invited to launch an urban birding watchpoint atop the USCE Tower, a 25-floor skyscraper situated on the confluence of the Rivers Sava and Danube. It was a successful short weekend trip during which I met with the main woman at the Serbian Tourist Board. She summarily invited me back the following spring for a fortnight of exploring the Pannonian Basin in the northern region of the country.
So, fast-forward to the next spring. I’m with Milan Ružić, a respected Serbian Ornithologist having my eyes truly opened. We were exploring the Pannonian Basin – an area of lowlands surrounded by the Carpathian Mountains, the Alps, the Dinarides and the Balkan Mountains. In truth, I had a secret agenda. I wanted to bathe myself in international ornithological glory by rediscovering the long presumed extinct Slender-billed Curlew in some remote area of the region. The Pannonian Basin was once a regular stop for this mystical migratory wader.
I forgot about my mission very quickly after we began birding. We left Belgrade after enjoying views of inner city Hooded Crows, fairly numerous Pygmy Cormorants, Black-headed Gull and a flyover White-tailed Eagle. As we headed north on our road trip we encountered surprisingly lush agricultural land that was clearly being farmed much less intensively than what I was used to seeing in the UK. A quick scan of the landscape produced plentiful European Bee-eaters, European Turtle Dove and curious looking Susliks, shy ground dwelling members of the squirrel family.
During this inaugural visit we saw lots of great birds but nothing that you wouldn’t have seen in the countries neighbouring Serbia like Hungary or Romania. But Milan had saved the best for last. After hanging out for a few days in some decidedly rural environs, I began to hanker for a bit of urban birding. Milan obliged by taking me to a few of the towns and villages that peppered the Basin.
We visited a public park in Rusanda, toward the northern border of Serbia, where I witnessed a sight that practically knocked my socks off. In the trees were not one, two or three, but around twenty pairs of semi-colonially nesting Long-eared Owls! I was looking at more LEO’s than the collective number I had ever seen in my whole life – all in one place! The reason for the super abundance was due to the bonanza of owl food: rodents. It was all thanks to the old-fashioned farming practices that involved fields being left fallow or half harvested with spilt grain left everywhere. I was still reeling from the sight of all of those owls plus the additional birds in the trees that lined the streets when Milan totally blew me away. During the winter, over seven hundred roosting birds routinely chill in daytime roosts further north in Kikinda, near the Romanian border. This made this town the best place in the world to see Long-eared Owls!
In Serbia, Long-eared Owls are urban birds and there are at least twenty towns and cities including Belgrade with roosts of over two hundred birds. But, all of this could end if Serbia joins the EU and its agricultural productivity intensifies, leading to less food for the owls. Fortunately, the Serbians themselves are beginning to realise that the owls are not the purveyors of doom, as their superstitions once dictated, but a fantastic way to boost their local economies through ecotourism.
So, every year since my first visit, I now lead tours in the Spring and Winter to primarily observe the multitude of owls along with the other abundant wildlife on show. This Winter we were treated to at least one thousand Long-eared Owls with as many as one hundred gathered together in some trees. My clients were in raptures as they ogled at the owls whilst the birds, in turn, stared quizzically back at them.
Serbia is a surprising place, not least for the genuine warmth and hospitality of its people. After six years, I still haven’t had even a sniff at finding the elusive Slender-billed Curlew. However, after six years, I still find myself marveling at the sheer number of owls to be found in this region. It really is a case of seeing is believing.
– David Lindo, The Urban Birder