Monday, May 13, 2013

A Weekend in Istria

So where's Istria? Ok, so it is in Croatia but that doesn't tell you the whole story. It is a bit of a world apart; a peninsular jutting like a miniature India into the northern tip of the Adriatic Sea opposite Venice. The influence of that city state can be seen throughout and it often feels more like Italy than the Balkans. It is also a major holiday destination, especially for German and Austrian visitors, where naturism is a popular draw.

It sits at about the most northerly point of the Mediterranean and on the boundary between the distributions of many eastern and western bird species. That, and the dominant karst geology, which takes much of the area's water underground, means birdlife is not as diverse as elsewhere in Europe. But we were tempted by truly cheap flights to Trieste and a desire to experience the beautiful cities of Pula, Rovinj and Poreč. £30 per head return, only £60 for 3 days car hire and petrol at about £1.10 a litre. Accommodation was also reasonable and there were plenty of campsites if on a tighter budget. We stayed in an apartment in Rovinj, quite central and we thought the prettiest of the three towns with the best choice of food.

Driving is easy in Istria. The toll road running north-south is worth using as you can drive the whole thing in under an hour and the toll is under £4; shorter trips not much more than a pound. If coming from Trieste airport allow about an hour to get through Italy, Slovenia and into Istria. The Italy/Slovenia border is not manned but there can be delays at the Slovenia/Croatia border. We waited about 20 minutes leaving Croatia and I can imagine in high season this could take a lot longer.

The drive through Slovenia uses a short section of toll road and your car needs to display a vignette (sticker) to use this. They cost €15 for 7 days (longer periods are available) and are sold in plenty of places on the way. Before buying though, check your hire car doesn't already have one still valid from the previous driver. Look for the rectangular sticker(s) in the window on the driver's side. The punched holes on the sides are the date of issue and the year and number of days are printed in big letters. Ours did have a valid vignette, which unfortunately expired the day before our return journey.

It is possible to avoid the toll road to save the cost of the vignette. There are very good directions here. It only takes about 15 minutes and makes sense if you aren't driving anywhere else in Slovenia.

So on with the wildlife. The first surprise was the lack of raptors. A few Common Buzzards and Kestrels joined only by a single Honey Buzzard and a couple of Marsh Harriers (one hunting the airport in Italy). A tantalising view of an all dark falcon while driving strongly suggested Eleanora's Falcon but that was it. On the other hand it quickly became clear that one of the most conspicuous birds was to be Jay but otherwise birds seen casually from the road were few. We did manage a couple of Hoopoes and Turtle Doves though.

Our base at Rovinj had quite a few Scop's Owls, a Little Owl and the expected Common Swifts, Swallows, Starlings, Great Tits, Starlings, Magpies, Blackbirds, Collared Doves and Serins. Oddly no Black Redstarts here or elsewhere but one of the region's commonest bird, Nightingale, was singing near the apartment (as well as just about everywhere else). The garden was crawling with Wall Lizards as well:

Common Wall Lizard Podarcis muralis

Pula and Kap Kemenjak

So, Pula is a must see. The Roman Arena (6th largest in the world) is well preserved and also a haven for more wall lizards:

Common Wall Lizard Podarcis muralis

After that I fancied the southernmost tip of the Istrian peninsular and this proved a good move. The place was hopping with birds. Earlier rain had brought down a few migrants starting with flocks of Swifts and hirundines, including a couple of Red-rumped Swallows, a male Redstart, then small flocks of Bee-eaters overhead and a few Northern Wheatears on the shore. Probable breeders included a singing Subalpine Warbler, several Red-backed Shrikes, Melodious Warblers, a single Western Bonelli's Warbler, Blackcaps, Cirl and Corn Buntings.

Red-backed Shrike Lanius collurio

Cirl Bunting Emberiza cirlus

This was also a very flowery place with many orchids and some Wall butterflies (my orchid id skills are best described as shaky so treat with caution):

Bertoloni's Bee Orchid Ophrys bertolonii

Butterfly Orchid Anacamptis papilionacea

The Mirna River

This was the other really birdy place we visited. A long section of wet meadows alongside a tamed river course ending at some small lagoons. A small calidrid wader flying around at the coastal end failed to settle for an id but Little Egret and a showy Purple Heron were also here.

Purple Heron Ardea purpurea

Red-backed Shrikes were scattered all along with Great Reed Warblers and Nightingales singing and the odd Fan-tailed Warbler.

Red-backed Shrike Lanius collurio

East of the motorway viaduct a female Marsh Harrier and a pair of Coypu (much more wary and wilder than the ones we saw last month in the Carmargue) showed then we came across 2 or 3 singing Black-headed Buntings along with Melodious Warbler and a singing Quail. The buntings were a bit of a surprise as this is the very extreme of the species range and I doubt there are any further north or west of these birds in Europe.

Black-headed Bunting Emberiza melanocephala

A short video compilation of Black-headed Bunting, Melodious Warbler, Red-backed Shrike and Hooded Crow:

Photos taken with Canon Powershot SX50 HS

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