Lake Skadar’s Emperor

The weather the other morning at Vranjina was sunny, clear and warm. The squacco herons now joined by a couple of little egrets rushed from the water’s edge as usual, some perching motionless in the nearby trees.  A little bittern flew across the road; this is a much more reserved heron species and only seen occasionally. The penduline tits ‘seeped’ their high-pitched call and one flitted with a huge, white cotton beakful of reedmace to a nest deep in the willows. The Dalmatian pelican pair seems to have moved on from the far side of the lily-filled lake but the whiskered terns remain busy and ever-active; a few fly over the adjacent river Moraca and stoop like swallows as if to drink but they are picking off floating insects from the water’s surface.

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Whiskered tern taking a stranded insect from the surface of the Moraca river.

The four-lined snake (Elaphe quatuorlineata) was resting in its usual place amongst the rubbish and did not move as we walked by along the gravel track at Vranjina. A head appeared and there seemed to me to be an understanding of sorts that we look on and he, or she, sits in peace albeit with an ever watchful eye. On our return the snake was gone; we lifted a few sheets of discarded hardboard and a handful of small dice snakes (Natrix tessellata) rushed down the bank to the sanctuary of the reeds and water.

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Four-lined snake keeping an eye amongst the waterside debris.

A great reed warbler sat in a willow and belted out his scratchy tune as if on a broken violin. These have arrived in the past few weeks and fill the reeds with their tuneless rattle and the cuckoos look on with great expectations.

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Great reed warbler singing from Salix alba.

Further on and a butterfly dives down and circles us before returning to the willows that run along the edge of the wetland and border the river. We watch and we get a view of sorts of a large butterfly with brown markings.  Along the track there are perhaps three more territories and we get a glimpse of deep purple sheen as the wing catches the light. We return two days later and the butterflies appear with the morning sun and the males come down and perch obligingly on low bushes.  we watch one return to the trees and perch adjacent to another, presumably a female.

This is Freyer’s purple emperor (Apatura metis), very similar to the much more widespread lesser purple emperor (A. ilia) and especially the Eastern European sub-species A. i. clytie. Freyer’s is rare and Lake Skadar, even though not currently recorded within the breeding distribution, may support an important population given the extent of freshwater and the food plant Salix alba. The butterfly has a beautiful, purple sheen on the upper wing that only appears at a certain angles to the sun, otherwise it is a speckled brown but large with a strong and dashing flight.

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Freyer’s purple emperor: a rare and local species endemic to southeast Europe.

A black-tailed skimmer (Orthetrum cancellatum) settles on a dead branch and returns each time it is disturbed. There are a range of plants including vivid blue chicory (Cichorium intybus). A few moth mullein (Verbascum blattaria) appear diminutive when compared to the ubiquitous, common or great mullein (V. thapsus).

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Black-tailed skimmer and chicory.

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