The Prokletije Mountains

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Balkan Wildlife

The tourist town of Plav, surrounded by blossoming plum orchards and set next to its pretty lake, and the smaller, more prosaic Gusinje sit beneath the Prokletije mountains within a broad valley joined by the meandering river Ljuča. The mountain range forms a natural barrier with Albania to the east and Kosovo to the north. Like the coast around Ulcinj, the area has strong ties with Albania.

Prokletije commonly translates as ‘Damned’; high, impenetrable and forbidden, they must have been cursed on many a journey. The limestone towers over the narrow valleys, rock falls are frequent and the sunlight on the valley floor arrives late and leaves early. The mountains are bare and comprise stone grey pyramids, precipices and caves. Snow and ice fields hang like necklaces, and dark pines cling to the cliffs. Below is a soft green collar of bright green, beech forest.  I admire the huge rocks that litter the valley floor and then crane my neck to see where they came from. I do not relax in this place, just pass through; it is an intoxicating and dangerous beauty.

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Gusinje in morning light.

Gusinje is an old crossroads of a town reflected by its mixed community of Muslims and Catholics, formerly much more prosperous than Plav. The architecture is a mix too of old and new. The old is wood, plaster and corrugated iron; fragile, impractical and intricate; and the new, warm and functional. At dawn in strong light, the sleeping town is, like Llareggub, full of character.

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Views of the town of Gusinje.

The first bird I hear just after dawn is a fieldfare giving its familiar ‘chack chack’ call. Later, I watch one chase crows, probably defending a nest in a tall back garden tree; these are breeding here, at least two or three pairs, probably more. This charismatic species is expanding its range in the Balkans. I saw a pair of mistle thrushes by the river and I wonder if these have been moved off their village turf?

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A fieldfare; suspected breeding birds were seen on the outskirts of Gusinje and Andrijevica.

The orchards and trees hold wrynecks that compete with each other with their repetitive ‘kee-kee-kee’ calls. Starlings feed in the meadows, house sparrows flock in bushes and dust-bathe on the road, and goldfinches are more common here than elsewhere.  A pair mate on the fence in front of me and then jangle off. Swallows nest everywhere, they sing from the wires and collect mud from wet ground.  A pair of red-rumped swallows play tag for minutes; one leading, the other following around an old barn full of sheep guarded over, like all flocks, by an old mongrel that is tied up and given a rickety kennel for cover. The river shingle has been bulldozed into irregular piles on either side of the rushing water, perhaps to be collected for building or road mending.

There are two valleys running into the mountains: the Dolja valley to the south and the longer Ropajana valley running up from Vusanje through to Theth in Albania and linking with the Valbonë valley. I walk the Dolja valley in the evening and under grey clouds it becomes increasingly oppressive and dark. The valley floor then opens up into a large meadow riven by flooded streams of meltwater and water bubbling and gurgling from springs. Here there is the largest carpet of crocus and snowdrops within the short grass that is spectacular even in the gloom; pipits and pied wagtails feed and bathe, and robin and black redstart sing their melancholy songs in the still air.

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Views of the Dolja valley with meadows, flooded by meltwater, covered in snowdrops and crocus.

The next day after the early morning around Gusinje, I manage a fair few kilometres along the track through the Ropajana valley in beech woodlands and occasional open meadows surrounded by pine and juniper. There are no large raptors soaring just alpine choughs in pairs high on the peaks. One breaks off and chases a bat that it may have disturbed from a cave or crevice but the bat evades the repeated stoops with ease and the chough soon gives up. A kestrel circles another high cliff. The valley is quiet, just chaffinches, robins, endless chiffchaffs and marsh tit in the woodlands and wheatear and rock bunting in the meadows. I look for meadow vipers (Vipera ursinii) but only small lizards run and startle in the dead leaves. Dippers and grey wagtails are on the river which after a couple of kilometres up hill disappears underground. Rock falls are loud and perturbing; I look up to see where each comes from but see nothing but quiet cliffs. I do not venture up where the track gives way to a path meandering through the woods; there are brown bears here, wolves and lynx too. Today the valley is hot, still and lifeless and I want it to stay that way.

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Views of the Ropajana valley above Vusanje.

The flora is the early spring flora of Crocus and snowdrop (Galanthus nivalis) in the meadows, joined under the edge of the beech by Yellow Star-of-Bethlehem (Gagea pratensis) and an elegant Corydalis species, probably Corydalis cava. Butterflies are few: brimstones (Gonepteryx rhamni) fly by, holly blue on the wet mud (Celastrina argiolus), small tortoiseshell (Aglais urticae) and grizzled skipper (Pyrgus malvae) in the fields below the forest are all that I can find. These alpine habitats briefly comes alive with a remarkable diversity of flowering plants and butterflies in June and July.

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Crocus variations and, I think, Corydalis cava.

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Yellow Star-of-Bethlehem under the beech and snowdrop in the snow.

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