Balkan Tour - Serbia, Albania, Montenegro, Kosovo & Macedonia - April/May 2023
From 24 April – 2 may 2023, I went on a solo birding trip to the Balkan where I visited various birding hotspots in (Serbia), Albania, Montenegro, Kosovo & Macedonia.
Unfortunately, the original program for this trip was changed due to a flight delay from Amsterdam to Tirana.
As a result, I missed a connecting flight from Belgrade to Tirana and had a welcome yet unexpected birding afternoon in the heart of Belgrade, Serbia.
Below is the program of my birding trip. I started in Tirana and basically went north clockwise through the different countries to finally end up in Tirana again.
Mon 24 Apr: Flight Amsterdam to Belgrade (11:45 – 13:45). Drive to hotel in Belgrade. Birding in Šumice Park in Belgrade. Drive to airport. Flight Belgrade to Tirana (00:35 – 01:50). Pick-up rental car. Drive north (70 km / 1.2h) to Kunë-Vain-Tale Nature Park (see nr. 1 below).
Tue 25 Apr: Kunë-Vain-Tale Nature Park. Visit Rozafa Castle, Shkodra. Birding Livade (see nr. 2 below) and Lake Shkodër (see nr. 3 below) – Night at Four Generation Hotel in Siroka, Albania (at Lake Shkodër).
Wed 26 Apr: Crossing border to Montenegro. Ulcinj Saltpans (see nr. 4 below) – drive to Virpazar (see nr. 5 below) - Boat tour Lake Shkodër, Montenegro (11:00 h). Drive to Lovcen National Park (see nr 6 below) via Cetinje. Visit to Kotor (GPS: 42.424685, 18.769476); visit the old walls (GPS: 42.425611, 18.769548) and the cathedral (GPS: 42.424183, 18.771318). Night at Milas Trojica in Kotor, Montenegro.
Thu 27 Apr: Tivat Saline Nature Reserve (see nr. 7 below). Drive to Podgorica (GPS: 42.369312, 19.224297) and visit Cijevna Canyon (see nr 8 below) (GPS: 42.379203, 19.257845). Drive north to Lake Plav in the heart of Prokletije NP. Quick hike around Grlja Waterfall in Prokletije NP (see nr. 10 below). Night at Hotel Komnenovo etno selo Kula Damjanova, at Lake Plav, Montenegro.
Fri 28 Apr: Early morning: hike around Grlja Waterfall in Prokletije NP (see nr. 10 below) (GPS: 42.553104, 19.831233). Drive Plav to Pejë, Kosovo: 179km / 3,5h. Drive P9 North to Berane (GPS: 42.847027, 19.865791), E65 East to Rozaje (GPS: 42.842381, 20.168530), P8/R106 South to Pejë (crossing border to Kosovo). Visit Rugova Valley/Canyon (see nr. 11 below). Night at Hotel Kulla e Zenel Beut in Pejë, Kosovo (GPS: 42.660917, 20.285618).
Sat 29 Apr: Visit Rugova Valley / Canyon. Visit Hotel Te Liqeni area, Kuqishte. Birding Karkagaq Park, Pejë. Night at Hotel Kulla e Zenel Beut in Pejë, Kosovo
Sun 30 Apr: Visit Vican Decani Monastery (see nr. 12 below). Drive south to Mavrovo (via Gjakovë, Prizren and Tetovo) (200 km / 4h). Visit Prizren. Mavrovo Lake (see nr. 13 below) – Mavrovo NP (see nr. 14 below). Visit to Galicnik – Night at Mia’s Favorite Hotel in Mavrovo, Macedonia.
Mon 1 May: Drive to Rostushe (GPS: 41.607570, 20.600780), Visit to Duf Waterfalls, Visit to Deer Leap Bridge (GPS: 41.542473, 20.629284), drive to Debar, South to Struga/Lake Ohrid (see nr. 15 below). Walk around Lake Ohrid. Vist Ohrid. Night at Comfort Hotel in Struga, Macedonia.
Tue 2 May: Drive to Tirana, Albania (90km / 2h) – flight to Amsterdam (14:40 – 19:15)
Skoda Fabia: Euro 160 (8 days)
Rental company: Petani Agency (via Rentalcars.com)
Albania: Albanese Lek (ALL)
N-Macedonia: Macedonische Denar
1 Kunë-Vain-Tale Nature Park
This Reserve is a coastal wetland with a large lagoon. My access road was a little tricky via gravel roads (GPS: 41.734686, 19.610819) but there is also entrance gate and a paved road to follow through the park. One of the best birding locations during this trip. Beste birds: Red-footed Falcon (only ones of the trip), Whinchats, Woodchat Shrikes, Cetti’s Warbler etc. Also quite adventurous because I got stuck on the sandy beach with my rental car but, fortunately, I got help from local fishermen to pull me out.
Wetland on the shores of Lake Shkodër just West of the city of Shkodër. There is a parking (GPS: 42.065802, 19.489125). From here I walked in the direction of the marsh where I found a lot of trash and some old fisher boats. Not a very attractive place but I did see my only Squacco Heron of the trip here.
3 Lake Shkodër
Albania shares this lake with Montenegro. Lake Shkodër is the largest lake in the Balkans and one of the largest fresh-water lakes of Europe, where 281 bird species were recorded (90% of them migrating and wintering species). It is a shallow lake, 14 by 44 km, surrounded by wide flood plain on its northern bank, with willows, reedbeds and floating vegetation. This is a good spot to see Dalmatian Pelicans and Pygmee Cormorants. There is a nice drive from the city of Shkodër along the south side of the lake (GPS: 42.058481, 19.462535). Just south of Shkodër, I visited Rozafa Castle which was amazing! The only place where I saw Eastern Black-eared Wheatear (Oenanthe melanoleuca). This is also quite a good place for butterflies: Old World Swallowtail, Green-underside Blue etc.
I also liked my visit to the nice old Mesi Bridge (Albanian: Ura e Mesit "The bridge in the middle") (GPS: 42.114233, 19.574228), in the village of Mes, about 8 km northeast of Shkodër.
4 Ulcinj Salina Nature Park
Just across the Albanian border and immediately east of the town of Ulcinj, this area consist of a series of shallow smaller salt flats, largely devoid of vegetation, where 241 bird species (once?) have been recorded. It seems that this place is most exciting during the migration and winter period when it attracts up to 20,000 waterfowl, of which around a hundred are Dalmatian Pelicans and maybe a few Greater Flamingos too. However, when I was there I found nothing but an abandoned and dilapidated factory site and overgrown empty salt pans. There is a parking (GPS: 41.918330, 19.249857) and an entrance gate. You just have to show your ID- card to the guards at Salinas entrance and you can walk in or take your bike (GPS: 41.919791, 19.270580). This place is not worth the drive and the only birds I saw here were Red-rumped Swallows, Zitting Cisticola’s and a Corn Bunting.
5 Virpazar – Boat tour Lake Shkodra
A lovely small fishing village near the border with Albania. This is a good spot to see Dalmatian Pelicans and Pygmee Cormorants. Whiskered Terns were flying in the harbor. I took a boat tour at 11:00 with Kingfisher Boats which departs from this town (GPS: 42.246263, 19.091071); they have a “Kingfisher Counter” on the stone bridge in the town. The boat tour was rather disappointing; the two boat drivers didn’t speak any English and did not give any information. On the lake I did see my only Short-toed Eagle of the trip.
6 Lovcen National Park
Lovcen NP is situated in the rocky region of the Dinaric Alps. There is an entrance fee of Euro 3 (cash!) and a parking (GPS: 42.400816, 18.827224) and 1.5 km further up the road a viewpoint (GPS: 42.393931, 18.844977). Also, a little bit further, there is a Mausoleum to visit (GPS: 42.399829, 18.837566) which was nice but especially because of the Yellow-billed Choughs flying in and out. Afterwards, I took the lovely winding serpentine road all the way down to Kotor (GPS: 42.409465, 18.789231) and enjoyed the wonderful views. I the evening I walked around in the beautiful town of Kotor which probably was the nicest town of the trip.
7 Tivat Saline Nature Reserve
Tivat Saline is a wetland area, with access to the sea and close to the forest. The wetland is a small area of 150 hectare and located on one of the key points on Adriatic migratory corridors for birds (Adriatic Flyway) and one of rare remaining wet coastal habitats for birds. Due to abundant food in shallow waters, it should attract birds in abundance. However, when I was there, I only saw a few Wood Sandpipers, Yellow Wagtails, Northern Wheatears and a Woodchat Shrike. There is a parking (GPS: 42.390700, 18.711887) where a trail starts through the area. Also a small visitor center but it was closed when I was there. There is a bird tower at the very end but that one is badly placed.
8 Cijevna Canyon
The Cijevna river runs through this beautiful canyon (12 km long). It is an Important Bird Area but frankly, I wonder why. I visit the gushing waterfalls and explored this beautiful area a little further. During summer months, this should be a significant breeding place for Short-toed snake eagle, Levant sparrowhawk, falcons and partridges, Eurasian scoops owl, European nightjar, Eurasian hoopoe, crested lark, Black-eared wheatear, Western rock nuthatch and others. But I didn’t see any of that. Best thing here was my lunch in a new small restaurant along the road that runs along the canyon (GPS: 42.379203, 19.257845). To my surprise, one of the customers insisted on paying my bill which was extremely nice. I guess they were very happy that a tourist was visiting.
10 Prokletije National Park
Just across the border with North Albania. Mountain Prokletije is a center for breeding raptors in Montenegro, and numerous high-mountain species. 10km before the hotel at Lake Plav, in the town of Gusinje, there is a visitor center (GPS: 42.553104, 19.831233). From here you can follow a track going south (Vusanjska). In the grass, I took beautiful photos of a Fieldfare. Further down this road, you come to the Grlja Waterfall (GPS: 42.522891, 19.841449) and further down the road (follow the track on the left) to a small mountain lake that is called “the Eye of the Grasshopper” (GPS: 42.511757, 19.835758). This is nature at its best! There are several hiking trails in this area. This area turned out to be quite productive: White-throated Dipper and Grey Wagtail around the stream and Eurasian Wryneck, Northern Wheatear, Mistletoe Thrush, Eurasian Bullfinch and Lesser Whitethroat along the paths.
11 Rugova Valley
In the west of Kosovo, it is part of the mountainous border with Albania and Montenegro. There is an Information Center in the town of Pejë (or Pec) (GPS: 42.661211, 20.271235). This area is one of the most beautiful areas of Kosovo. I visited Rugova Canyon twice, just west of Pejë (GPS: 42.664781, 20.231105). I drove the beautiful road through the mountains and along the river. There is a hiking trail going into the mountains which starts here: GPS: 42.664348, 20.205268, and a little bit further another hiking trail: GPS: 42.697464, 20.160789. After exploring the trail(s), I took the car and continued the road until the end, basically near the Montenegro border. I wanted to make the 1-hour hike to a lovely lake: Lake Leqinat (GPS: 42.669208, 20.090710) but there was too much snow and the path was inaccessible after 100 meters. The trail starts at the town of Kuqishte (GPS: 42.693425, 20.076910) and then via Hotel/Restaurant Leqinat (GPS: 42.682741, 20.084501). It was just beyond the hotel where I had close encounters with a magnificent Eurasian Nutcracker in the pine trees and in the meadows below the hotel a large group of Ring Ouzels.
12 Bjeshket e Nemuna National Park
A little south of Pejë. It borders the Prokletije National Park in Montenegro (nr 10).
I visited Vican Decani Monastery (GPS: 42.546291, 20.265494) in Decani village, one of the most beautiful monasteries in the Balkans. The monastery is beautifully situated in the woods with mountains in the background. The monastery is heavily guarded by an international force, as the monasteries are Serbian. When I arrived on 30 April at 07:00, I was the only visitor here and the friendly (Italian) guards let me in after leaving my passport behind.
13 Mavrovo Lake
Mavrovo Lake is a beautiful artificial lake (GPS: 41.660698, 20.733995) seemingly carved in between the mountains. Set in breathtaking scenery, amid grassy plateaus and snowy peaks, it is as much of a postcard image as any. A centerpiece of the lake though, something that catches the attention right away, is the half-submerged Saint Nicholas church (GPS: 41.660009, 20.735551) which is somewhat preserved and entirely accessible when the water falls back throughout the year. The lake, an attraction by itself, also freezes entirely during cold winters, and it is a rare sight indeed. The lake is home to many waterbirds and apparently frequently visited by Golden and Imperial Eeagles and sometimes a Lynx. The only interesting birds I saw here were Northern Wheatears and Black Redstarts, both near the old church.
14 National Park Mavrovo
This park is characterized by deep canyons, lakes and dense forests that abound with diverse wildlife. The park area contains the highest waterfall in the Balkans (with a vertical fall of approximately 120 m).
From the town of Galicnik there are various trails that start here (GPS: 41.593742, 20.659807).
Just West of the main road to Debar: a visit to the nearby Duf Waterfalls is supposed to be nice and it is reached through a trail through the woods (15 min walk) that starts right behind the old mosque in the town of Rostushe (GPS: 41.607570, 20.600780). It was a lovely walk but I never found any waterfalls here.
I drove further south (on the way to Lake Ohrid) and visited the small bridge “Deer Leap” (GPS: 41.542473, 20.629284), just east of the main road to Debar, which outdoor enthusiasts will find quite captivating. You can’t see much of the bridge because it is overgrown with trees and scrub. I crossed the old stone bridge (although it was blocked by plastic tape) where I had a better view on the bridge. Here I also found a hiking trail.
15 Lake Ohrid
Lake Ohrid is one of the oldest lakes in the world and is thought to have formed around six million years ago. The border of Albania (south-west side) and Macedonia (north and east side) runs through this lake. The entire lake was declared a Unesco World Heritage Site in 1979, due to both its cultural significance and its immense natural beauty.
The reedbeds along the North-West part of the lake between Struga and Kalista, with flooded meadows and bushes are nice. I parked my car here (GPS: 41.163794, 20.651691) and followed the path along the lake in southern direction. This is a lovely walk and this area is full of Great Reed Warbler. A Little Bittern showed himself briefly before flying off.
The town of Ohrid (GPS: 41.111120, 20.788877) was settled by both the Romans and Ottoman Turks and its architectural heritage is superb, with an old fortress, amphitheater, orthodox churches and mosques all contained within one small area. It is very much worth a visit!
16 Galicica NP (due to bad weather on the morning of 2 May, I didn’t visit Galicica NP)
In the southwestern part of Macedonia, like a separator that divides Ohrid and Prespa Lake, the beautiful mountain Galicica extends. The National Park Galicica is a part of the mountain, and along with the city of Ohrid and the lake, it was placed under the protection of UNESCO. The park with its Galicia plateau (GPS: 40.953811, 20.829155) lies east of Lake Ohrid and south of the historic town of Ohrid. From the town of Ohrid, you can explore the wooded slopes along the winding road up to the high elevation plateau. Birds to look for include Syrian Woodpecker, Rock Bunting, Rufous-tailed Rock Thrush and Rock Partridge.
1 Rambuje Resort, in Lezhë, Albania (GPS: 41.753166, 19.593092)
I originally booked this accommodation, but due to the flight delay, I never saw this place.
2 Four Generation Hotel, in Siroka, Albania (GPS: 42.058699, 19.451711)
Beautiful clean and new hotel in a nice little town. Wonderful view over Shkoder Lake, from the room or balcony. Very welcoming and friendly owners, beautiful healthy and delicious breakfast.
3 Milas Trojica, in Kotor, Montenegro (GPS: 42.404142, 18.764353)
The apartment is located in a small village just outside lovely Kotor and you'll have a great view over the illuminated old town in the evening from the hill it is located on. Very nice hosts, clean and spacious apartment and a private parking across the road opposite of the house. It is easy to find and it has a swimming pool.
4 Hotel Komnenovo etno selo Kula Damjanova, in Plav, Montenegro (GPS: 42.587755, 19.929108)
At Lake Plav, in the heart of Prokletije NP. The hotel is located on a beautiful lake in the middle of the mountains. The hotel burned down in 2017 and renovations were still going on at the time of my visit. I was the only guest and they gave me one of the wooden cabins in the garden of the hotel to sleep. It was spacious but rather basic. The garden had some nice birds: Fieldfare and Coal Tit. The staff was friendly but hardly spoke any English. Somehow, I managed to get a lovely diner with a free beer from the owner. At night I heard a European Scops-Owl calling but I didn’t see it.
5 Hotel Kulla e Zenel Beut, in Pejë, Kosovo (GPS: 42.660917, 20.285618)
Brand new refurbished Kulla in the heart of Pejë. Best stay in Kosovo! Absolutely amazing, the building itself is beautiful, room is cozy and nicely designed with modern facilities and very clean. Very friendly and helpful owner and staff. The restaurant in the hotel also offer delicious food! Unbelievable breakfast. There is a small car park opposite the hotel (only one space) and right next to the hotel where you can park if the owner has not parked his car there.
6 Mia’s Favorite Hotel, in Mavrovo, Macedonia (GPS: 41.658533, 20.734372)
This hotel is nice although staff was quite formal and distant! Lots of parking, beautiful location on Lake Mavrovo and every day of your stay you get a free hour to the spa which is didn’t use. Each room has a TV with Netflix for cozy evening watching a movie. The hotel has an good restaurant in itself, where you can eat well at reasonable prices. A bit further north, however, is a nicer restaurant: Mavroski Merak.
7 Comfort Hotel, in Struga, Macedonia (GPS: 41.178155, 20.676676)
This hotel is probably the best in town. New hotel, quality materials, very clean and modern. Staff is very helpful. Located in the city center with free parking in the back of the hotel. In 3 steps to the pedestrian area and in a few minutes to the beautiful canal with numerous restaurants, from there to the lake.