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Wetlands Champion Publishes Guide

Lonjsko Polje’s 100,000 Birds Inspire

There are 100,000 birds on Lonjsko Polje, Martin Schneider-Jacoby reports. It sounds a lot more interesting if you know three things:

How many is 100,000?

Duck hunters in the western Balkans can generally distinguish between two kinds of birds: Good Enough To Eat, and Better Left To Rot. The latter category includes everything from hoopoes to flamingos and anything larger than a cicada. In a situation like that, seeing a slender-billed curlew just makes you nervous. During the bird flu scare in spring 2006, there were tens of thousands of birds on every wetland in the Balkans every day. In 2009, the Neretva Delta had three garganey for the entire month of March. That figure of 100,000 means somebody must have had a good long talk with some hunters.

What is a polje?

The mountains on the eastern side of the Adriatic are made of porous limestone. Rain and snowmelt saturate them like a sponge, filling the caves and pushing underground rivers far out to sea. Whenever a river comes up for air in the mountains, it dissolves the surrounding rock. If there is enough space to begin with, the result is a polje: an oblong valley on a slight tilt, with a spring at one end and a drain at the other. The floor of a polje is flat as a pancake. The poljes are lined up in descending chains like basins in a fountain – miles apart, with mountains in between, connected by underground rivers.There are hundreds of these vast wading pools in the Balkans. Lake Scutari on the border between Albania and Montenegro is permanently flooded and doubles its surface area in winter. Three feet deep on average, water at body temperature in summer, but crystal clear and covered with water chestnuts and whiskered terns – all because it’s fed from below by huge springs. Even the so-called Neretva Delta gets most of its water from springs.

Poljes are great for birds and birders: Because they fill up with water and are surrounded by mountains, roads run around their edges at a slight elevation. Some of them get an occasional car, but many are deserted. Just pull over, set up your telescope and prepare to be amazed.

Because if you’re a bird standing in Tunisia and looking north you don’t have many good options. On your left are gun happy Malta, Sicily and Italy. Bear right, and you’ll be flying along the Balkans – one of the steepest coastlines in the world. But there are deltas and abandoned salt works near the water, and if you move inland via a river or over the mountains, there are poljes. Especially if you’re a wader, it’s worth it.Who is Martin Schneider-Jacoby?

The German ornithologist Martin Schneider-Jacoby, 54, spent three years in Yugoslavia writing his doctoral thesis. Then he joined the NGO EuroNatur, based in Radolfzell. Thanks in large part to him, there are now bird sanctuaries all along the eastern Adriatic coast. Other conservation organizations stay out of the Balkans. I asked one of them why: “Because Martin is already there, and we would just screw things up.” Which sounds nice enough, except that Martin is desperate for help. Except in Slovenia, the bird sanctuaries still lack everything: rangers, equipment, signage, visitors and, in some cases, birds.

So the unsung hero spent last summer finally writing a “birding and nature guide” to the coasts of Slovenia, Croatia, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Montenegro and Albania. (I personally translated it into English for a low flat fee.) It will be out in April or so. What with Martin’s being a bon vivant, it includes plenty of tips on which cafes, restaurants and motels have interesting birds hanging out on the terrace and where you can swim with the cormorants and meet sandpipers that are entirely tame (they commute between the taiga and the Sahel and don’t know what people are). Even the rare and elusive Dalmatian Pelican has its favorite restaurants, believe it or not. Bird-free sites are passed over in discreet silence. The book literally provides a bird’s-eye view of the western Balkans and makes a perfect complement to normal travel guides.

This delightful text will not be handed out like candy, but sold as an attractive little book with color pictures. Martin needs to raise money, because his local partners need no-strings-attached capital to secure matching grants for projects that are absolutely vital. I saw an Albanian grant application the other day. They were begging a foundation in Switzerland for 2,000 Euros to hire a project coordinator for a year. If they had half a million, they could ask for half a million. That’s how foundations work.What can you do to help?

The book isn’t out yet, so you can’t buy it. But if you have time on your hands, go to the Balkans right this minute. Bird migration runs from August through early June. Rent a car and drive around. Sit down next to a body of water, watch and – if you can – count. Martin needs all the data he can get. In the off-season you can always find a motel room. (There is abundant tourist infrastructure for the summer people who come to enjoy sun so hot even the reptiles know better than to go outside.) If the weather turns bad, head for the beach - that’s when the big seabirds like Cory’s Shearwater come in close to shore. Be sure to find the administration building in every park you visit, and tell the director you’re there to see birds. You’ll make his day.

Nell Zink - Reutlingen, Germany - January 28, 2011

4th July 2014