To begin this story I have to go back to the autumn of 2011, when I read a tweet by David Lindo (the Urban Birder) about his plans to run a trip the following spring to look for owls in Serbia. I registered my interest, but I was also looking at a return to Sweden with Daniel Green of BirdSafariSweden for some winter birding and I was running out of time as the trip began to fill up – so I went ahead and booked the Sweden trip. Come February – just as I was about to leave for Sweden – I received an email from David with the details for the trip to Serbia. Given that the Long-eared Owl was the flagship species of the tour (it’s also my favourite bird and I’d never managed to see one in the wild before), I knew I couldn’t miss it. I borrowed the money and booked. It turned out to be an incredible trip. Aside from seeing at least a couple of dozen Long-eared Owls, we also got Little Owls, a Ural Owl in a nest box, Hoopoes, White-tailed and Lesser Spotted Eagles, a Red-footed Falcon, Long-legged Buzzard, Short-toed Snake-eagles, Montagu’s Harriers, Marsh Harriers, Crested Larks, a distant Pallid Harrier, Saker Falcon, Peregrine, a Goshawk on a nest, lots of Cuckoos (including a rufous-phase female), Black Redstarts, Yellowhammers, Golden Orioles, Avocets, Black-tailed Godwits, Little Stint, Marsh Sandpiper, Ruff, and eastern-race Stonechat, Savi’s Warbler, Great Reed Warbler, Garganey, Tawny Pipit, Wheatears, Black-winged Stilt, Whiskered Terns, a White-winged Black Tern, Caspian Terns, Spoonbills, Black-crowned Night Herons, Pygmy Cormorants, Syrian Woodpeckers, a Middle Spotted Woodpecker, and much more besides. I knew I had to go back one day…and very soon.
Fast-forward to this September, on returning from Spain Jem and I were considering booking another holiday before Christmas, and it took little convincing to get her to come round to the idea of doing The Urban Birder’s Long-eared Weekender. The numbers of Long-eared Owls in Serbia in the winter are nothing short of ridiculous, and I needed to see this for myself (and show it to Jem). So we booked ourselves on the tour (via TravelTheUnknown) and it all began last Sunday morning in Terminal 4 at Heathrow Airport…
After getting over the shock of observing a group of middle-aged men checking onto our flight with rifles, handguns, and boxes of ammunition, we met up with David and the rest of the tour group and relaxed before the flight. I’m happy to report that now Etihad have taken JAT Airways over and they’ve become AirSerbia, they seem to be a bit more efficient (they cancelled my booking last time, didn’t bother to tell me, and then had the audacity to charge me extra for the new booking). On our arrival in Belgrade we met up with our local guide, Milan Ružić, and boarded our bus to the small town of Ečka. We spent the first couple of nights there last time, in the Kastel Ečka hotel, but this time we’d spend every night there. This is a good thing, because a walk around after dinner brought us a roosting Kestrel and curious Barn Owl in the church next door, Little Owls were heard, and then we saw several Long-eared Owls in the trees in the hotel’s courtyard. One even did the wing-clapping display and landed on the grass a few yards away from us, splaying his tail out in the hope that a female might come down for some lovin’. To us it was pretty cold – well below freezing – but it was actually unusually warm in Serbia for the time of year. This meant some birds were still open to some non-productive mating, and it also meant there was a noticeable lack of winter-visiting passerines.
After an early breakfast we went straight out for a full-on day of Long-eared Owl action. We started in the small town of Melenci with a roost comprising 50+ birds in a small courtyard. Long-eared Owls tend to have two distinct expressions – a cat-like wince that they seem to use to camouflage themselves when they’re roosting, and an open-faced startling glare at all other times. When I was in Serbia last time, the owls were mainly in the roosting mindset and I only really managed to photograph one owl displaying the more open appearance (which is what I really wanted to see). This particular roost was much more photogenic – probably as it was still early in the morning and they hadn’t fully settled down, and also because we were able to get so incredibly close to them. We continued to watch and photograph them until they started to become a bit unsettled and we decided it was best to leave them to relax.
The second stop was at the nearby Rusanda spa where we got a briefly-showy Little Owl on top of a house, some eastern-race Jackdaws, our first Syrian Woodpecker of the tour, and another small LEO roost. We then walked to the edge of the lake (where I got my first – and only – Marsh Sandpiper last time I was here). An awesome Sparrowhawk glided past us and landed in a nearby tree. This has been ‘the year of the Sparrowhawk’ for me – I’ve seen one almost every time I’ve gone out birding – but despite this I’d never seen one perched – they’d always been in flight, so this was almost like a new tick. We then watched a Kestrel and a distant Hen Harrier for a while before a fantastic Merlin crossed our view just a few yards away. That was an unexpected treat. Eventually, after locating at least one Goldcrest in a bush, we left Rusanda for Kikinda – the flagship location of the tour.
Kikinda appears to be a standard Balkan town, but once you arrive in the main town square and look up into the trees, you notice something bizarre: owls. Lots and lots of owls. Almost every tree in the square, regardless of species, contained roosting Long-eared Owls. The biggest number I counted in any single tree was 32, but I’m sure there were lots more that just weren’t visible. We spent quite a while in Kikinda’s square, and Milan, David and Tom were interviewed by various local media crews too, but it didn’t get old. Almost every tree seemed to be better than the last. After a nearby lunch, a short wander, followed by coffee and cake in a nearby cafe, we returned to the square in time to watch the owls waking up and flying out for the evening. It was a strange, but memorable, sight. Sadly my camera equipment (and my skills) weren’t up to catching any owls in flight as it had got so dark, but Tom was giving it a go. In the end we estimated there were probably somewhere around 500 owls just in Kikinda’s square. Not bad at all…
We were on Serbian TV!