Plavnica Water Meadows

The road from Golubovci runs arrow straight for six kilometres, so the sign says, to the isolated riverside resort of Plavnica through a flat landscape of small farms.  Each holding and their house is different but nearly all are growing vegetables in neat plots, with cabbage and lettuce being most prominent. These are planted out by hand with a long string used as a guide. The soil is freshly prepared, weed free and the patterns of green plants on fine, brown earth appear geometrically exact.  Some crops are irrigated by piping water into channels between the rows watched over by an experienced eye. The worked fields are surrounded by buttercup-filled fallows and orchards now in bloom.  I saw a couple of knapsack sprayers, one tackling the weeds and the other protecting the blossom so it is not all down to nature.

On a perfect Spring day like today, the land is full of life: tractors ploughing, mowers running, slow bicycles turning, children shouting, corn buntings rattling, sparrow flocks chirping, magpies chacking and always flapping, and spiteful cats chasing one another across the quiet road.

As the land lowers on the shallowest of gradients towards Lake Skadar so the farms give way to fields, which are waterlogged or flooded in the winter. A few are now being ploughed and the rest used for hay or nothing much at all given the swathes of fading, summer snowflake (Leucojum aestivum) in many of them.  These are small fields lined by species of poplar, willow and ash with overgrown shelterbelts of flowering hawthorn (Crataegus monogyna), flowered blackthorn (Prunus spinosa) and emerging dogwood (Cornus sanguinea) and other shrubs, thick-edged with white lady’s smock (Cardamine pratensis).

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Lombardy poplars along a field margin.

The damp fields are thick with clovers and sedges amongst the meadow grasses and dotted with ragged robin (Lychnis flos-cuculi)Flos-cuculi means cuckoo flower, presumably because both appear about the same time of year. Also a tall, elegant flax species (Linum bienne) with pale blue flower and, just coming out, a handful of of elegant, deep purple, loose-flowered orchid (Orchis laxiflora). There are mauve marsh violets (Viola palustris) and field madder (Sherardia arvensis) in the hedgerows, along with stands of imperial blue bugle (Ajuga reptans), a bright yellow medick (Medicago lupulina) and a purple vetch (Vicia sativa).

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Ragged robin and pale flax.

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Loose-flowered orchid and summer snowflake taking over a field corner.

The field margins are alive with the song of nightingales; staccato tucks, clean cadences and explosions of notes. Singing males competing with each other and at times filling the air. The supporting singers include blackbirds and blackcaps together with an intermittent timpani provided by the ‘seep-seep’ of yellow wagtails; the ‘kee-kee-kee’ of wrynecks; ‘hoo-hoo’ by, of course, hoopoes, drumming from Syrian and lesser-spotted woodpeckers and discordant, scratching magpies. Once a ‘peep – peep – peep’ from a Scops owl high in a Lombardy poplar and a ‘kee-up’ from a little owl. Cetti’s warblers regularly disrupt the symphony with their shouted, chipping calls.

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Female yellow wagtail and male hounding a marsh harrier.

The yellow wagtails are nesting already and birds puff and preen on the trees on the edge of the fields.  A male give chase to a marsh harrier that sidles by.

The trickiest customers are, of course, the snakes; of seven sightings all but two have been brief as they slide quickly from the sun into hiding places in the brash. I walk up the track to a puddle and watch the marsh frogs (Pelophylax ridibundus) jump in and pondered why they are not hunted, whereupon a grass snake (Natrix natrix) zips off in to the hedgerow having been in plain view on the mud by the edge of the pool.  I think all seven sightings are grass snakes, except perhaps one large one in the centre of a pond that slides off a stump as I approach and hence is just a blur and fading, frustrating ripple.

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A short section of grass snake and marsh frog.

The fields and tracks are dominated by brimstone butterflies (Gonopteryx rhamni), so there must be abundant alder buckthorn (Rhamnus frangula) or buckthorn (Rhamnus cathartic), their only larval food plants, in the hedgerows. I found a pair with different sexual priorities and it was a lewd affair. The prostrate female with her abdomen skyward is not enticing the male to mate; the pose indicates a disinclination since she has mated already, and the tattered male is a failing, flapping flutter all around her.

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A female demonstrating she has already mated to a persistent male.  The blue flower is bugle.

Large tortoiseshell (Nymphalis polychloros), Camberwell beauty (Nymphalis antiopa) and comma (Polygonia c-album) are all occasional along the tracks and one small-tailed blue (Cupido argiades) and madly beautiful, southern festoon (Zerynthia polyxena) in the grass fields.  I chase a larger blue, perhaps a common blue (Polyommatus icarus) but never relocate it.

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Southern festoon in the meadow and Camberwell beauty perched on ash.

Dragonflies are still not common; a large migrant hawker dragonfly (Aeshna mixta) is freshly emerged and a number of damselflies with pinkish tails are immature blue-tailed damselflies (Ischnura elegans).

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An immature blue-tailed damselfly and migrant hawker dragonfly. All damsels fold their wings up and dragons do not.

A few kilometres of fields gives way to wetter ground dominated by a dark emerging mint (Mentha) species and tall yellow Iris (Iris pseudacorus) just beginning to bud; the track becomes increasingly puddled and waterlogged.  A stinking corpse of a dead cow, perhaps drowned in the winter, explains the large, chuckling conventicle of magpies that fly off on my approach.  A little egret flushes from a flooded field. There are Phragmites reed beds and the sound of coots ever arguing, and I guess the open water is close but there is nowhere to view the scene.

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