Thursday 30 June 2011

What is helmeted guineafowl doing here? Albania trip report part 2

On two days of my Albanian trip I stayed in Durres. It is a coastal resort near Tirana.  The location gave me a chance to do some garrigue birding along the coast.

The city

Durres is a city of about 200,000 and is the second largest in Albania. It has a port which is surrounded on both north and south sides by beaches and associated hotels. It doesn't have the best beaches in Albania but it is the most popular resort. I think there are two main reasons for this. The first one is that many of the holidaymakers are ethnic Albanians from Kosova and Macedonia and it happens to be the closest seaside resort to their homes. Two, it is close to Tirana and attracts holidaymakers particularly at the weekend from the capital city.

Like Tirana it has many cafes. It possibly has more hotels despite its smaller size. I think its main attraction for holidaymakers is the sea and sand. Unlike Tirana I was aware there were very few non-Albanians there and I was a bit of a novelty.

Getting there

When I took the international bus from Skopje (Macedonia) to Tirana it passed through Durres. Even at 3.30 in the morning I was aware that many passengers got off here. I now know they were ethnic Albanians from Macedonia on holiday. Likewise most international buses into Albania from the north or east pass through Durres before reaching Tirana.

Just as many people reach Durres having been to Tirana first. You have a choice of four ways to get there. Minibuses go every half hour and buses go every hour for just under a euro.  A taxi will cost you the equivalent of about 20 euro and the train about 60 euro cent! but it is the slowest method. In short, Durres is well connected with Tirana. You biggest problem is finding where the relevant start points are for each mode since bus stations don't exist. The train stations do exist but most foreigners forgo this "experience". I did.

Don't even think about car hire. The driving is the worst in Europe and I have been to Azeribaijan to compare it!

Choice of hotel

With a couple of exceptions most hotels are around two star. I didn't book in advance and chose my hotel "Ferrara" on one basis only. It was on the northern edge of the coast and was the nearest one to the coastal garrigue. I am pretty sure no one else has used this criterion before. Indeed by the reaction of the staff having a foreigner there was quite rare. Nevertheless I was happy with my choice. It cost 25 euro a night and was in a pleasant aspect near the yacht club. I was able to walk out of the hotel and start birding in the countryside after no more than one hundred metres.  

The centre of Durres tourist quarter

The birding

I birded by literally walking out of the hotel and walking along the coast northward. Like Grand Park in Tirana and unlike Shkoder and Dajti (my other birded places in Albania) this walk is not a recognised birders venue. It's definitely off the beaten track and was arguably more fun because of this. 

The first day I birded from 11am until 5.30 and saw very little! The second day I birded from 8am until 12 and then again from 5.30 until 7. Then I saw tonnes. The moral is that many garrigue and marquis birds don't venture out in the heat.

view from part of my walk

What follows is an account of what I saw but it is not in chronological order. I'll start with the most shocking sighting first.

helmeted guineafowl near Durres

At about 9am on the second day when it was still relatively cool, I saw a sight straight out of Africa. Two helmeted guineafowl were browsing in an area of long grass. They didnt seem too bothered about me and behaved just like the birds I had seen in Botswana and Namibia. I was gobsmacked. I thought they were only wild north of the Sahara in Morocco and also introduced in southern France. Nobody told me to expect this.

Trembling, I sent SMS messages to two friends. Both responded quickly. One suggested I record the sighting officially and the other told me it had been introduced into Albania just like it had been in southern France. The latter text message sobered me up but since coming back I still haven't found any reference to their introduction to Albania on-line. Certainly for example, the BirdLife International monograph doesn't mention it.

house martins on a wire

One of the few birds out in the middle of the day was house martin and there were tonnes of them along with a few red rumped swallow and even fewer barn swallow. This trio never seems to worry about the heat wherever in the world I see them. Three other birds were obvious all day long whereas all the rest were more picky about there activity. Magpie and house sparrow were once again prevalent just like in Tirana. The third "heat tolerant" bird was much more interesting. There is a colony of lesser kestrel up high in the cliffs above the coastal path. They seemed to be giving the newly fledged house martin a hard time although I've never heard birders talk about lesser kestrel showing interest in such fast birds.

Until mid- morning and again late in the evening the warblers come out "to play" (or more likely eat).

sardinian warbler

I am fairly confident that the most common warbler in the area is my old friend the sardinian warbler. This bird reminds me of Libya were it is much more common than any guide book gives it credit in summer as well as winter. I was very pleased about getting this picture because I took it blind into the shrubbery, having lost sight of him a few seconds before. I knew it was somewhere around but couldn't see it. I shot and then scanned the picture and there he was!

eastern oliveaceous warbler

Now I have to make a confession. Birding is a relatively new if intensive hobby for me and I have never seen an eastern oliveaceous warbler before. The books say it is quite common near my Bulgarian home but as luck would have it my first sighting was 3 metres in from the sea at Durres, Albania.

black eared wheatear

Very near to this place I saw a black eared wheatear. Actually this area was a purple patch because the helmeted guineafowl was also found very close too. When I see black and white wheatears I try to see their backs and fronts. The ears aren't that important to me. If the back is all pale then its a black eared wheatear.

second "more traditional" view of a black eared wheatear. 

In Libya near Tripoli some of these birds breed but most pass through. In Benghazi all pass through.I can't help thinking this bird passed through Libya since Albania is directly north of my old stamping ground.

white wagtail

White wagtail are also very numerous in Libya in winter and the bird above probably wintered there but this one summers just north of Durres, Albania. He was seen just as it was getting cooler one evening and was a greenfinch.

collared dove

I have noticed many collared dove close to Albanian settlements of any size and this was certainly again the case along my coastal walk.  Have you ever realised how much the eyes of a collared dove can look like a drop of blood! I hadn't until I took this picture.

yellow legged gull

Finally from a birding perspective, I was reminded from time to time that I was at the seaside when the occasional yellow legged gull would fly past.

very large locusts

I just want to finish by writing a few words about the other fauna along the coast. First I can say I observed some of the largest locusts I have ever seen. My mind started boggling at what sort of birds should have been around and would enjoy this meal. I suspect they are the main part of the diet of the lesser kestrel which probably has much more success with the locusts than with young house martin.

And finally from all perspectives, a kind thank you to the goats, sheep and cattle which kept me company during my walks. They were every where! Shame about the shepherds' dogs which also intruded every now and again

goats along the way

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