The road from Virpazar runs along the southern shore of Lake Skader but this is no gentle drive but a twisting, edge of the hill, thread of a lane for 30km or more to Ostros. The dramatic drive gives dramatic views of the Lake and villages that find the few areas of flat fertile land to grow grapes and, at the eastern end, olives. The road twists endlessly through oak, probably Q. petraea, and hornbeam (Carpinus betulus) scrub forest, that grows on the limestone karst. There is also a small Elm (Ulmus) species and the distinctive Christ’s thorn (Paliurus spina-christi). The karst is bald boulders of limestone stacked like irregular grey sugar lumps across the hillside. Trees grow in the patchy, shallow soils and also find purchase in the many deep clefts caused by the action of rainwater. These forests are largely impenetrable even without the trees and thorny scrub that snare and blood the unwary.
Immediately above the oak, juniper (Juniperus communis) scrub often appears to dominate but the ‘Important Plant Area’ factsheet for Rumija states that beech (Fagus sylvatica) and the rarer Heldreich pine (Pinus heldreichii) are also found, mostly in accessible areas higher up. This mountain, at nearly 1,600m, is the pinnacle of a 40km long whaleback massif and has to be climbed soon, and not just viewed from the comfort of the roadside.
View of Lake Skadar and the patchwork of scrub oak and hornbeam forest together with bare limestone outcrops that cover the north side of Rumija Mountain.
Oak-hornbeam forest carpets the lower slopes across the Rumija massif and most of the low hills of Montenegro. The discrete patches of woodland on the snow-covered mountain sides are, I think, beech.
The stunted forest with their remnant leaves gives the slopes a dun brown hue, but suffused in the early Spring with splashes of yellow from the many Cornelian cherry (Cornus mas) trees or Dren in Montenegrin that grow especially well along the roads and around the villages. This maybe because the berry is eaten, used in jams and to flavour brandies and vodka and hence is probably planted or otherwise deposited.
Cornelian Cherry or Dren adds colour to the early Spring lowland forests.
In many areas, especially where there is plentiful soil, Butcher’s Broom (Ruscus aculeatus) is dominant to the exclusion of everything else.
Butcher’s broom monoculture under oak.
In early March, the ground under the bare trees is coloured with huge numbers of crocus (Crocus speciosus), as well as lesser numbers of snowdrop (Galanthus nivalis), alpine squill (Scilla bifolia) and, most elegant of all, dog’s tooth violet (Erythronium dens-canis). This is much more attractive than its name implies. In the early morning the petals are closed and hang downward, I suppose like a dog’s long white canine, but these unfurl and the ugly dog’s tooth becomes an elegant origami crane.
Crocus under the oaks.
Dog’s tooth violet.
I should have looked at the snowdrops more carefully because I now find, just as they are going over, that there are two other species to find here, both with lovely Latin names Galanthus reginae-olgae and Galanthus elwesii. The first translates as Queen Olga’s snowdrop and the second, more prosaically, is named after Henry John Elwes; a Victorian ornithologist, plant hunter and constant gardener of spring flowers at Colesbourne in Gloucestershire, and finder of his Galanthus species in Western Turkey. I think Olga or Elwes will have to be for another year unless I can find some later flowering plants higher in the mountains when the snows have cleared. There are, as well, a host of different Crocus speciosus sub-species and perhaps other Crocus species too in the woods. Complex stuff.
The striking Star-of-Bethlehem (Ornithogalum umbellatum) is found throughout the hills; this on a quiet lane under oaks near the village of Pobori above Budva.
The birds are few before the migrants arrive as the buds burst; Jays are common but keep a wary distance and at this time of year have a wide range of subdued squeaks and calls like a badly trained budgerigar. Blackbirds are nervous and dash away always with a startled shriek. The most frequently seen, apart of course from ubiquitous great tits, are pairs of rock buntings that feed on the roadside and don’t hurry to get away. On a steep slope with scant tree cover, a pair of rock partridge flew like cannonballs down the slope.
Rock bunting male with distinctive striped head.
Best of all, I was startled by a glass lizard as I stumbled down a grassy bank and it moved noisily away and under a rock. Half and hour later it was back in the sun and did not rush to hide. I have also found the odd lizard but no snakes yet. They must still be in the warming ground.
Glass lizard warming up in the Spring sun.