I am pleased to say that Serbia is finally finding its way into the hearts and minds of birders worldwide. The stigma of the war is finally lifting. The symbol that is rapidly replacing that gruesome history and is now representing Serbia on an international level is a much more friendly and welcoming one: the Long-eared Owl.
Situated in the Balkans and part of the former Yugoslavia, Serbia is a small landlocked country of contrasts. In the west there are lush mountains covered in forests with impressive valleys and picturesque gorges. To the north of the country where it borders Hungary and Romania the landscape is very flat with few trees. This is the area that I visit when leading my Serbia Winter Owl TUB Tours.
Around 15 years ago Serbian ornithologist and President of Serbia BirdLife Milan Ružić stumbled upon the fact that large numbers of Long-eared Owls were roosting in urban areas from Belgrade right up to the northern borders. Even in bustling Belgrade roosts of up to 200 birds were using the trees that butted up against the government buildings set in a lightly wooded parkland area close to the Danube. So, along with a small party of volunteers he set upon a crusade to chart the roosts and count the numbers of individuals. Over the ensuing years he calculated that upwards of 30,000 birds were regularly wintering in the region.
This news was slow to leak out of Serbia. When I first met Milan 10 years ago I had to ask why these phenomenal Harry Potteresque events was not common knowledge in the world. His answer made sense. He and his colleagues were too busy counting owls and more importantly, convincing the locals that the birds were not spectres of doom to be murdered on sight but indeed, a great source of ecotourism revenue.
Today, the owls of Serbia are now headline news in the ornithological world and the single place to visit that typifies this incredible phenomenon is Kikinda – the Owl Capital of the World. From mid-December until the end of February the square in this town plays host to the largest gathering of any owl species on the planet. Upwards of 600 Long-eared Owls can assemble in the trees. The birds snooze during the day wearily gazing down at their growing number of admirers. Unlike roosts in the UK and Western Europe that are tiny in comparison and contain birds usually roosting at head height, the owls in Serbia go for loftier resting places in Junipers and other tall trees. So it is a case of craning your neck plus, for every bird you count add another two that will be discretely perched behind the foliage.
Just prior to dusk the birds become restless sometimes sallying forth in a low floppy circular flight to land on a nearby tree or building. It is almost as though they were stretching their wings before the night’s hunt in the outlying rural areas. It is possible, even in the half-light to identify the handful of Short-eared Owls that are sometimes hidden amongst them. These are birds that have recently learned to take advantage of urban roosts. Instead of lurking around the roost before heading off Short-eared Owls tend to spiral upwards before drifting away.
When I first arrived in Kikinda it was a very different place. The locals looked at me as if I were a mad man when they saw me wandering around slack jawed, gawping at the owls. Nowadays, a much warmer welcome awaits visiting birders. There are now shops open selling owl paraphernalia and every November is now Owl Month in which kids dress up as owls. Best of all, despite being an urban town square the local government have made it a nature reserve – which is a world first, by the way. The officials even impose massive fines for anyone found disturbing the owls. This is truly a fantastic conservation story that can only succeed if people continue to visit this remarkable square.
Final words of advice: plan your visit before randomly turning up in Kikinda. The road signs are mostly in Cyrillic and thus almost impossible to follow for the uninitiated.
Lastly, when photographing the owls please follow the ethical code and do not unduly disturb the birds. Although many are used to people as they are in urban areas please respect their space.