Copyright 2000 by Dragan Simic.
In summer, Skadar -- the biggest lake in the Balkan Peninsula, straddling the border between the Yugoslav republic of Montenegro and neighboring Albania -- has an area of 370 square kilometers. But in winter, its waters swell and expand to cover all of 540 square kilometers; or, to put it in other words, it's 44 km long and 7 km wide in summer -- and 14 km wide in winter! With its vast area, comparatively shallow water (between 5 and 8 meters on average), lush vegetation and moderate Mediterranean climate (the lake is only 25 km from the Adriatic Sea), the Skadar Lake National Park is a winter sanctuary for numerous birds that migrate from the frozen marshes of Northern Europe. When ice grips the northern hemisphere, up to 250,000 ducks, grebes and Coots find here a plenty of food. For an amateur-ornithologist like me, it's an irresistible lure.
On that mild mid-January day, I was gliding in a boat, its old Diesel engine wheezing asthmatically, across the calm surface of Skadar Lake, watching three Crag Martins pirouetting in the sun. They build their mud nests on the cliffs of nearby Mounts Rumija and Prokletije and winter on the lake.
We had barely started across the lake, when a tree rose up in front of the prow of our boat, with 25 Pygmy Cormorant resting in its branches. Pygmy Cormorant is highly restricted range species, its total population estimated between 50,000 to 60,000. This lake is one of two locations in now-day Yugoslavia where these birds breed.
With a hillock covered with thick Cypress trees receding in the distance behind our stern, we approached the island of Lesendro, one of the 50 islets that are dotted around in Skadar Lake. In the 15th and 16th centuries, fortresses were built on some of them, monasteries on others. On Lesendro, 400 years ago, there was built a fortified city famous for its battles with the Turks in the day of Montenegro's great ruler Bishop Njegos. The empty towers still stand sentinel over the island, as though awaiting the long stilled Turkish hordes that charged, sabers held high, to the wail of their long wooden bugles and the beat of drums.
Further along the lake, nestling in a cove cut by nature in the northern slopes of Vranjina Hill, there slumbers the small fishing village of the same name, with a few dozen well-proportioned stone houses and a pier festooned with traditional flat bottomed wooden boats, unique to the area and unchanged by centuries. Surprisingly, through the tiled roof of a tiny house there billowed dense white smoke! Could the house be on fire? No, my guide and the tiller reassured me and explained that this was a smokehouse, a place where carp is cured with smoke from smoldering willow logs. And smoked carp is a delicacy of the lake cuisine.
We entered a 2.5 km canal that would eventually take us into the River Moraca that feeds the lake the brunt of its water. Before it flows into the lake, the Moraca meanders in the valley on its wide northern bank that is flooded by the lake every winter, turning it into a shallow swamp where fish rush in the spring to spawn. There they join the myriad birds -- warterbirds (Glossy Ibis included) as well as Mediterranean specials -- to build their nests and gorge themselves. The periodic floodings are necessary to sustain the lake's exuberant ecosystem of 42 species of fish and more than 275 species of birds.
Among the willows I spied sparkling white spots -- Great White Egrets. Two skipped around in an unusual fashion, stretching their long legs out in front of them and spreading their wings -- a fight! Disturbed by our curiosity, they lazily spread their wings and took off from the clump of willows, one after another, all 15 of them.
Having circumscribed Vranjina with the prow of our boat, we sailed down the Moraca back into the lake, and there we found the solution of the riddle that had been nagging me all through the journey: where are all the thousands of birds?
Suddenly, I heard the lapping of waves -- but there was no wind! Our passage had disturbed the Coots and they were running on the water preparatory to taking off into the sky. The surface of the lake was an endless black line of birds. As far as I could see, they were mostly Coots, with a fair sprinkling of Pochards and Great Cormorants, and here and there a Tufted Duck or a Great Crested Grebe. While we were doggedly looking for them in the shallows of the flood plain, the birds had been hiding in the most obvious place -- right in the middle of the lake!
Skirting the edge of the endless flock, we sailed across the lake to the tiny islet of Grmozur, a strange sight in the high water -- the islet practically invisible, its shores flooded, and only the crumbling walls of the penitentiary dating back to the time of Montenegro's Prince Nikola rising from the water. The tillerman, speaking with special warmth to his voice, showed me the place where Dalmatian Pelicans nested under the spreading boughs of an old Fig tree a few years ago. Last breeding at Skadar was recorded in 1993, and since, due to disturbance of breeding colonies, Dalmatian Pelican is no longer nesting in the Yugoslav part of the lake. Occasionally, during the migration, Dalmatian Pelican can still be seen on the nearby Ulcinj Salt Works -- I saw one bird there in September 1998. (My tillerman didn't really mention it, but I know something else about the Prince Nikola and Grmozur penitentiary: he used to keep political prisoners together with leprous patients...)
We sailed on through the reeds that the low sun had painted a rich yellow, glinting through the fronds on their tops. Standing on the pole that marks the canal navigable even in low water was a Great Cormorant. This was not the first Great Cormorant I had seen that day, but it was the first to have the characteristic white patch on its side that is its mating adornment. Was a mating of the Cormorants in the offing? But spring was still far away! Well, the love juices were already coursing in the veins of this bird -- it could smell the spring in mid-January. Winter was definitively on its way out!
We sailed into Virpazar, a cluster of just over a dozen houses arranged around a central square, which was where our trip ended. Or did it? -- for days after returning home, I would think of the serenity of the swamps and that rascal, the Great Cormorant with love stirring its veins!
Skadar Lake is reachable by road from Podgorica (30 km away; there's international airport there), and from Petrovac (25 km), lovely little resort town on the Adriatic coast. Overcrowded, touristy and overpriced but still beautiful, Budva resort is a further 17 km up the coast.
Basically, the lake is shallow and warm, and with the influence of moderate climate, it's a perfect Mediterranean wetland -- a highly endangered eco-system in the touristy Mediterranean.
Due to the UN embargo on fuel import to Yugoslavia, there were large smuggling operations on the lake. Some of the 'tankers' have sunk, further polluting the water already filled with fertilizer run-off from the fields in the Podgorica valley. Also, overhunting of the Woodcock (Scolopax rusticola) by visiting Italian hunters is a problem. The hunters are coming by Bari-Bar ferry with their 4x4s to fill up their cooler boxes and sell the meat as a delicacy to Italian restaurtants - and in Italy hunting of Woodcock is banned!
I stayed in the basic but clean, friendly and picturesque 'Pelikan' guesthouse owned by Tosko and Zorka Zec. Zorka's lake cuisine is marvelous -- you simply must try her spicy fish soup and smoked carp. Tosko is in a deep love affair with his lake, and he has two boats, so fishing and birding, or just swimming and sun-bathing tours can be arranged. You may contact them at Zorka and Tosko Zec, 81305 Virpazar, Montenegro, Yugoslavia; or by phone at +381 (0)81 711107 and 711011. Tosko's cell phone number is +381 (0)69 025246.
Another possibility is the hotel '13 Jul' only 200 meters away. The hotel overlooks the lake, cuisine is fair (but can't be compared with Zorka's), and rooms are clean and comfortable.
Wild camping in the area is possible, but expect no showers or ablution blocks.
Bring a lot of repellent, mosquitoes are a nuisance (but in the Balkans they do not transmit diseases). Water snakes in the lake are not poisonous, but in surrounding hills there are Adder and Nose-horned Viper. However, bites are rare, and no snakebite-related deaths have been recorded in the last 15 or 20 years -- so don't panic.
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