The country, people and birds
Albania is visited by relatively few tourists and if you asked the average Briton (or American for that matter) where it was, they probably couldn't tell you.
It should be visited by many more people because it has a blessed climate, extremely friendly people and a wonderful café society. It is a green version of Greece which is its southern neighbour. It's also a less expensive place to visit than Greece by a factor of about 2. Furthermore, it is a Mediterranean country with the full variety of Mediterranean birds and should see more bird watchers too. Birders rave about Spain as a warblers paradise but I bet there are more warblers per square inch in Albania than Spain. Come and visit it NOW!
Getting there and accommodation
I took a busman's holiday there last week. I went by bus via Sofia and Skopje in Macedonia. The round trip cost me a meagre 120 euro in bus fares but this mode of transport is not for the faint hearted. Each way took 24 hours and I didn't stop over in Skopje.
Northern Europeans and Americans might wish to fly there. The good news is the low cost Italian airline "Belleair" now flies in and out of Tirana to Italy, Greece and the UK.
I stayed three nights in the Hotel Nobel in central Tirana then two nights in the Hotel Ferara in Durres on the coast and one final night back at the Hotel Nobel.
The Hotel Nobel has rave reviews with trip advisor and Lonely Planet and it deserves them. They treated me well beyond what I could have expected.
I had planned to get into Tirana bus station at the timetabled time of 5.30am and wait in the waiting room before checking in early at the hotel for the next day. Things went wrong! The bus arrived early at 4.00 am and Tirana doesn't have a bus station (no really it doesn't - not bad for a city where nearly every one uses buses to get around there and the rest of the country - more about this later).
At the moment I realised my problem at being in a foreign city in the early hours like a homeless person, I began to curse the whole idea of the trip. However I took a taxi to Hotel Nobel and woke up the nightwatchman who happened to be the owner.
What wonderful help! He understood my problem. He didn't have a twin room for single occupancy which I had booked for the next two nights. I feared he didn't have a room at all. However he had one free and it was the biggest. He gave me the biggest room in the hotel for the single rate of 44 euro. Furthermore, the hotel said I could stay in the same room for my further nights too at the low rate. This rate includes breakfast by the way.
The birding schedule which evolved was quite simple.
In the Tirana area, I birded the Grand Park with its huge wooded grounds and lake. I also looked at the botanical gardens and when it got too hot one day, I took the cable car (teleferik) up to Dajti for some mountain birding. I understand that Dajti is a recognised birding location where organised trips go whereas the park isn't. Well more fool the birding tour companies! The birding in the park was first rate.
On other days I stayed over at Durres which is a near-by coastal resort to do some garrigue birding.
And on the final day, I took an inter-city bus north to Shkoder on the border with Montenegro. The fresh water lakes here are also on the list of most birders who visit the country.
I'll say more about getting to and from these other locations and of course about the birds in later blogs. I'll also say a bit about eating out in Tirana too.
Meanwhile this blog will concentrate only on what I saw on two long visits on separate days to Grand Park,Tirana. Its only 20 minutes walk from the main tourist area and my hotel so no transport costs and once again my budget wasn't threatened.
part of Grand Park, Tirana
First thing to notice about the Park is that it is big. It covers 55 hectares (139 acres). It is a mix of broad leaf trees and (less) pines with a lake thrown in. Its easy even on Saturday to avoid the crowds and cafés if you want to and get down to some serious birding.
I am sure that many visitors only notice the house sparrow and magpie which are almost everywhere. I wonder why some goshawk hasn't taken advantage of the huge magpie population? It would get very fat.
You only have to look a bit more closely and you realise there is much more to the park.
Warning, the events that follow are not in strict chronological order.
One of my prize sightings were some strange looking birds eating among the sparrow so close to many people. In fact at first I overlooked them. There was a family of very tame wryneck.
very confiding wryneck in Tirana Grand Park
The wryneck family allowed me to get within two metres. I could probably have got closer still if I had wanted to push it.
wryneck really do look like a piece of wood bark!
I presume they are so tame because they are so used to people and those people don't disturb them. I can't find anything in books about it being so easy to approach and I have always had trouble before.
video footage of wrynecks in Tirana Grand Park
They even allowed me to video them eating ants from the ground at close quarters. I will savour this memory.
another wryneck elsewhere in the park
While strolling aimlessly about 100 metres from where I saw the family of wryneck, I heard the tapping of a woodpecker. I headed towards the sound. Just before I reached the area, I looked up in a young tree next to the path. I couldn't believe it but there was another family of wryneck this time allowing me to view them from under.
Clearly the park keepers knew about the woodpecker because they have put some plastic tape across one path to stop people going too close. Its ironic that they have noticed the woodpecker but failed to protect the wryneck which I guess they missed.
The woodpecker gave me a good display from my vantage point behind the tape anyway. It was a Syrian woodpecker. Normally I look at the face marking to decide between it and greater spotted woodpecker but the light on the neck was unclear. However its very long beak and its (only) pale red vent area mark it out as Syrian.
short toed treecreeper in the park
The woodpecker was near a place where two days before I had sat down on one of the many tree stumps that the park has made into seats to quench my thirst. I had drunk a huge bottle of water and I suddenly became aware of a buzzing noise on a near-by tree. It was a short toed treecreeper - so close to a main path! I have studied this photo several times and I still can't decide whether the short toed treecreeper is actually feeding very small young with their mouths wide open. Am I imagining it or are there two or three young there?
I am 95% confident it is a short toed treecreeper not treecreeper which is a shame since I've already got a picture of short toed treecreeper near my Bulgarian home where it is the only summer species. Both birds ranges overlap in Albania but my shaky confidence is based on its call, the fact it was on a broad leaved tree (not conifer) and that its supercilium is not very white.
great tit in the park
Of course there were more "ordinary " birds in the park too. One of the more common ones seems to be great tit. They too are quite tame compared with those I have seen in other countries including Bulgaria.
One of the things wrong with the Collins guide in my opinion is its description of both song thrush and blackbird as confiding birds. Well they may be in British gardens where they have been give free food for centuries but not in many other countries especially when they are more woodland birds.
very young song thrush
There were plenty of thrush family members - nightingale, blackbird and song thrush in the more bushy parts of the park. Most were quiet but the one above was very noisy presumably begging for food. Its another tricky ID too between juvenile song thrush and juvenile blackbird. In the end with advice from a friend I'm going for song thrush.
There were no such problems with the ID of the two commonest birds in the park - house sparrow and magpie.
magpie in the park
Throughout Albania I was struck how common the collared dove is. Each settlement seemed to have a group of them. The park had several.
collared dove in the park
The park descends and at the bottom is a lake originally man made which is rather pretty in places with a couple of lakeside cafes but rather trashed in other places. However overall it is natural enough to satisfy a different set of bird species from the more wooded areas.
a view of part of the park's lake
The swallow family were numerously hawking the skies and water for insects. all three main species from the area were present - red rumped swallow, barn swallow and house martin. I was incredibly lucky to get one photo with one representative from each three species resting at the same time on the same branch.
one of each- barn swallow, house martin and red rumped swallow
The cover around the lake is not very tall but is obviously good enough for little grebe to breed. I was privileged to see a hatchling on the back of its mother. I have never seen this before. It was quite a sweet sighting.
little grebe mother and hatchling
The whole family is together in the next shot.
mother, hatchling and probably father
Where there is water in the balkans there are wagtails. Here were several yellow wagtail. Like in Bulgaria there are of the sub species fledegg. I had to walk all the way round the lake to the far side for these. The cover is higher on the far side and things are quieter. Its a little muddy in places so it doesn't get many people visiting but was ideal for my purposes.
fledegg - yellow wagtail
Lots of signs of local breeding of this bird here. Not least were the number of fledglings around.
yellow wagtail fledgling
Some new birders mistake a yellow wagtail fledgling for a grey wagtail. The irony is that the yellow wagtail fledgling is greyer than a grey wagtail. The moral is don't read too much into a name.
One or two white wagtail were present too. There didn't seem to mind being a bit closer to people and were mostly on the peopled side of the lake.
On my first day at the lake a couple of local people tried to strike up conversation. They could see I was a bird watcher and used their three words of English and ten words of Russian (they can speak it about as well as I can - poorly) to tell me a pelican which thankfully is same word in most languages was seen there the day before.
In summer this can only mean a dalmatian pelican in these parts.
Needless to say it didn't turn up on either of the two days I visited the lake. However two large water birds did arrive when I was there on the second day. They were on the secluded side of the lake where the men had said the pelican had been.
one of two cormorant at the lake
Two cormorant and two grey heron waited patiently to fish in the well- stocked waters. Its lovely to see such birds in the middle of a city of 750,000 people. They didn't seem phased by it all.
one of the grey heron
I wasn't expecting many large water birds in a public park in the city so they were a real treat. However I saw many more of the heron and cormorant family at Shkoder which is the subject of a later blog. Stay tuned.
While I hadn't really expected wetland birds I had expected more warblers. My sightings were restricted to a sardinian warbler in the scrub at the non-peopled side of the lake. However my visit to other parts of Albania more than made up for this including one "lifer" warbler for me. Again I'll report on these in another blog or two.
Sharing the scrub in the general area of the sardinian warbler were a small number of stonechat which were once again very tame allowing me close proximity.
stonechat in Grand Park, Tirana
In the next blog which will be part 2 of the trip report, I'll take you to Durres on the coast for some garrigue birding. Here I saw a "lifer" in the shape of a hippolais warbler. The blog is called "What are helmeted guinea fowl doing here? You'll have to read it to find out why.