Kopački Rit

I wouldn’t normally recommend visiting anywhere in August for birdwatching – things are usually quiet as young birds are keeping out of the way while they begin to discover independent life, and their parents are keeping out of sight while they moult and feed up to recover from the breeding season.  Also, it can be hot, especially in a continental climate. 

However, we were on our way to Greece in a campervan, and that meant travelling through the old Yugoslavia in the heat.  We stopped at a few places en route.  And some of them turned out to be real gems.

So, this piece is about my memories from then, followed by a description of the place now.  And it seems that the Kopački Rit Nature Reserve is good at any time of year.

August 1989

As we descended into the valley of the Drava, the floodplain appeared to be covered with reedbeds.  My heart sank as we got closer and I realised it was actually huge fields of maize.  Did the Kopački Rit still exist?  Had it been swallowed by intensive agriculture?

We stopped in Osijeck for groceries and information – not that there was much to be had back then.  At least we now knew we were on the right road.  We continued through another 10km or so of farmland, though it didn’t seem quite so intensive here.  And then suddenly we were in the wetland.

This was the edge of the park with fishponds – open water fringed with reeds – on one side of the road, and vast areas of rushes with clumps of willow on the other. On the water were hundreds of coot with a few each of moorhen, little and great-crested grebe and a few ducks. Moustached, reed and great reed warblers hunted in the vegetation.

Within a few minutes, an osprey flew in and circled the fishpond. It dived twice without success and eventually disappeared into the distance, mobbed continuously by common and whiskered terns, and black-headed gulls. A cuckoo flew past mobbed by a dozen hirundines.

A rush of coot and other birds over the water surface announced the arrival of a boat. The people on board were shovelling maize meal into the water – fish food that the birds weren’t interested in.

Purple Heron

There was a continual coming and going of waterbirds – purple and grey herons, cormorants, buzzards and marsh harriers, and sometimes a white stork too.

The road followed the edge of the fishpond then went straight north through farmland again. The drainage ditches were choked with yellow and white water lilies, and fringed with purple loosestrife, goldenrod etc; a few moorhen and mallard were in residence.

Dry-looking arable fields extended way beyond the channels. A black stork circled low over one field, working its way slowly along one edge, then it drifted back before going to rest in a dead tree at the edge of a wood.  In the sweltering midday heat, shade was hard to come by – the trees were too far from the road to be of much use. It was quiet except for the raucous calls of jays.

Back at the fishponds, we stopped on a track that leads into the park but has an “entry forbidden” on it. Sitting in the shade of the campervan’s tailgate, we watched birds coming and going for the rest of the day. To our right were the wooded rushes and willows, to the left was a fishpond with small fish – a tern paradise, and behind us the pond of bigger fish where we had stopped earlier.

Eight squacco herons were lined up along the edge of reeds; a little bittern flew in low, showing off its pale wing patches and landing clumsily on a reed; something disturbed a roost of night herons and scores of them emerged from some low trees; occasionally a little egret flew over.

White-tailed eagle – the emblem of the Kopački Rit Nature Park

We stayed put for the next four days.  Early in the morning, we would walk along the path on the top of a dyke, then back to the van before it got too hot – or sometimes when it was too hot as we got distracted by birds, mammals, reptiles and amphibians.  The shade of the tailgate provided some relief for the main part of the day, allowing us to watch the comings and goings of over 70 species of birds – including regular visits from white-tailed eagles as they picked up a free meal from the fishpond.  Then, in the evening, we’d take another stroll along the dyke.

The track was out of bounds to all except authorised vehicles and we saw only two cars during the morning. The driver of the second vehicle wanted to know what we were doing there and said something about it being a forbidden place. However, he seemed satisfied when I said the general tourist office in Osijek said we could walk here, so long as we didn’t leave the path.

One morning we watched as a couple of red deer came out of the vegetation, ran along the edge and plunged out of sight again. There were only tree sparrows occupying the top of a dead tree, but a movement lower down caught my eye. It looked at first like a squirrel but as the whole animal came into view its heavy build immediately distinguished it as a marten, then it disappeared into the foliage of a small tree below. Time to stop and watch!

After about five minutes the marten reappeared in another tree, moving slowly and deliberately from branch to branch, using its tail for balance; sometimes it leapt across a gap but always seem to stop to balance before moving on again. Its dark red-brown body and tail, contrasting with a yellow-cream throat, identified it as a pine marten. It showed itself four times for a few minutes each during a half-hour period as it explored the clump of trees thoroughly. Then it either went to sleep or moved to trees further away for we saw no more of it.

People were generally few and far between.  There was a Dutch couple who were pleased to see the sea eagle which was mobbed first by buzzards and later by marsh harriers as it soared over the marshes. Then an osprey arrived and caught a fish at the first attempt; it was mobbed by a black-headed gull which it easily outflew before flying in circles looking lost – perhaps it couldn’t see a suitable dining table. It was then chased by a marsh harrier which couldn’t keep up with it and was last seen being mobbed by buzzards as it disappeared into the distance.

Osprey

Our second visitor was a Frenchman called Dominic who had a long-term association with Kopacki Rit and permission to go into the reserve for bird photography. He is currently working on a book about the area. From him, we got some background information, for example the relative importance of the hunting reserve and its ability to bring in foreign currency while the bird reserve was left to its own devices apart from keeping people out. The fish ponds are managed in order to keep areas of open water but this does mean that many waterbird nests are destroyed when the reeds are cut.

Then there was Stefan, an over-enthusiastic photographer who admitted he was no ornithologist. He took pictures of the larger birds and game to sell to tourists. This was the third time we had seen him and he had brought some prints to show us. Dominic stopped by again and there was some bantering between the two photographers with the Frenchman repeatedly telling the Yugoslav that he has to approach things slowly, that he has to let the creatures know he loved them, and so on. Stefan gave the impression that he would just photograph purple herons one day, kingfishers the next, etc

You can read all of my notes from the five days here

European Pond Terrapin (Emys orbicularis)

Kopački Rit today

Looking at Google maps now, I can’t quite make out exactly where we stopped back in 1989. My notes say we were 10km from Osijek, which would put us at the north end of the reserve. However, it is possible that we were actually at the end of the road in the photo below. That road leads to the dyke – which now appears to be more accessible.

What is clear, though, is that this part of the reserve has received considerable development for visitor access and appreciation. The park website shows an extensive system of boardwalks and a visitor centre. There are exhibitions and educational/interpretive materials, guided tours, and a proper campsite nearby.

View of the boardwalks (image from the Kopački Rit website)

The Kopački Rit website provide a lot of useful background information, including the following facts:

  • The Nature Park encompasses a total of 231 km2, including a 71 km2 Special Zoological Reserve.
  • Nature Park Kopački Rit is one of the best-preserved large river floodplains in Europe.
  • Due to the abundance of fauna found in the southern part of the Park in particular, this area has been declared a Special Zoological Reserve.
  •  In 1986 it was included in the Important Bird Areas in Europe list. Its international significance was further confirmed in 1993, when it was included in the List of Wetlands of International Importance under the Ramsar Convention.

Kopački Rit is home to:

  • Some 300 bird species, of which 140 are breeding in the park
  • twelve species of amphibian
  • ten species of reptile
  • 50 species of freshwater fish
  • 48 species of dragonfly
  • 64 species of butterfly
  • More than 500 species of plant

Kopački Rit is also an important part of the Croatian-Hungarian Transboundary Biosphere Reserve Mura-Drava-Danube established by UNESCO in 2012.

White Water Lily (Nymphaea alba)

Other seasons

The floods start at the end of February or the beginning of March and last to the end of July or the beginning of August. The dry season lasts from August to February the following year, when most of the birds stay in the fishponds or rivers. The largest number of birds can be seen during the Spring and Autumn migrations, later during Summer.

Although the number of birds in Winter is less than in other seasons, thousands of wild geese and ducks arriving from West Siberia can be observed in the wider area of the Park.

Birding in Eastern Europe suggests that it is worth a visit at any time of year, though May is absolutely the best month.

The author also makes a safety warning: The surrounding area may not have been entirely cleared of mines from the 1990s conflict with Serbia, so do not leave the main roads or marked trails, or ignore warning signs.

Getting there

While travelling by car (or campervan as I did) is relatively easy, it is also possible to get there by public transport. Aim for Osijek – which has a railway station, then you’ll probably need a taxi for the last few kilometres.

If you use the Rome2Rio website for travel planning, be aware that one of their Kopacki Rit options takes you to the far side of the Danube (an expensive taxi journey from Osijek) and the other options take you beyond the visitor centre.

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Bear-watching

Bear necessities

It was only a footprint, but it was BIG. I felt the hairs on the back of my neck rise, and the adrenalin starting to pump. The only animal I knew of that size was bear, and bears certainly lived in the area, though at low density and rarely seen.

A second look told me the prints were not that fresh – maybe during the night, or even yesterday. The bear probably was NOT still close by. But we couldn’t help looking around, just in case. And talking loudly – bears usually avoid humans, so best to let them know you are around.

Bob tried to convince me that it was some human pulling a joke, but I think he was actually quite worried about it. Was it coincidence that, while trying to photograph the footprint, I managed to knock the tripod over and damage the camera – beyond repair as it turned out.

We were hiking along a public trail through the Urho Kekkonen in the Saariselka Wilderness area of Finland – a few kilometres from the visitor centre at Tankavaara. The same few kilometres from the road where we were expecting to get the bus back to Saariselka. We arrived back at the bus stop with 45 minutes to spare.

We certainly felt vulnerable – out in the open on foot. I had previously met black bears in America, but then I had been on horseback. A horse can outrun a bear on flat ground, a human can’t outrun a bear on any terrain – the bear has four legs and a low centre of gravity.

But it would be nice to see a bear properly – the bear in the wild, the humans in a relaxed/safe situation. It had taken years to see just the footprint, so what is the best way to see the actual bear?

The most obvious answer is to join a bear-watching holiday. These come in several sizes. Note that I have no connection with any of these places/companies. This is just a round-up of bear-watching opportunities advertised on the internet.

Eco-volunteering –

You’ll learn about bears and their environment from people studying them, and also contribute to conservation in that country. Greece, Romania, Bulgaria and Finland are good destinations, and Responsible Travel a good company to use.  There is a lot of information about watching bears on their website. 

Romania – volunteering at a bear sanctuary (see here for an account of visiting a bear sanctuary in Romania)

Greece – Bear conservation tour

Bear-watching trips –

A specialist trip, (or part of a more general nature trip) usually of a few days, designed to put you (with your camera if desired) in a hide for one or more nights in the expectation of seeing a bear at dawn or dusk. Usually, you are taken by vehicle to within a short distance of the hide, then on foot for the last fifteen minutes or so. For overnight stays, the hide will have bunk beds, basic toilet facilities, and perhaps a means of heating food (but not proper cooking facilities). In the morning, or at a pre-arranged time, you are collected, walk back to the vehicle, and driven to your accommodation, or the nearest town, etc. While nothing is guaranteed, a few nights in a hide is probably the best opportunity to see a bear, or two or three, plus some other passing wildlife.

Downloadable leaflet – How to behave in bear country

Finland

Martinselkonen Nature Reserve, located in Eastern Finland, is one of the best places in Europe to photograph brown bears. This tranquil wilderness location is highly recommended – on occasion up to 20 bears and eight cubs have been seen in a single night! And there is plenty of other wildlife to be seen. The location is popular with holiday companies and is included in many of the following tours.

Bear Centre – 29 hides for watching and photography – April – September

Brown bears near Kuusamo – May – October – further north than the centres listed above.

Bears and other mammals – suggestions from Visit Finland

Finland guided tours

Bears, wolves and Wolverines – April – August, self-drive trip – On this unique wildlife adventure in the boreal forest of Finland you self-drive between lodges, allowing you to explore the wildlife of the taiga at your own pace. We have selected three lodges with a network of outstanding hides from which to watch and photograph such iconic inhabitants of the far north as brown bear, wolf, wolverine and white-tailed eagle. Throughout spring and summer these overnight hides offer mammal-watching which is unrivalled in northern Europe.

Wildlife Worldwide holidays will also organise a bespoke tour, and many other companies provide something similar, perhaps especially for photographers.  

Just brown bears – summer –  a long weekend Brown Bear-watching holiday amongst the fine taiga forests that straddle Finland’s border with Russia.

Brown bear explorer June & July – Long evenings and early dawns allow incomparable opportunities to watch and photograph the wildlife of the forest on this 8-day tour in Finland. Staying at purpose built hides, night vigils with a naturalist guide reward you with close-ups of brown bears, wolverines and occasionally wolves.

Brown bears in Finland – May-August – An ideal short-haul break to a wonderful location for sighting brown bears in the Finnish wilderness.

Brown bear and elk adventure – May – September

Bear photography – June – Join wildlife photographer Tom Mason on a midsummer trip to photograph brown bears and wolverines, with four nights in specialist hides in the taiga forest of Finland.

Sweden

Bear watching in Sweden – A 4-day holiday to an idyllic, rolling land of forests and lakes where we will look for Brown Bears from a luxurious purpose-built hide, and enjoy the natural history, beauty and extraordinary tranquillity of a magical place just five hours away

South-eastern Europe

BulgariaBears and wolves

RomaniaBear-watching and Transylvanian castles – May – September

SloveniaHiking & bear-watching. Two perfect days to dive into the area of Kočevsko forest. Spend time in nature in search of wildlife and enjoy local delicacies. May – October

Slovenia –

Greece

Brown bear tracking in the northern Pindos – May – October – Track wild bears in a pristine mountainous corner of Greece: Northern Pindos. Back to nature with the friendly guides of wildlife charity CALLISTO to hear about bear research methods, walk in the wilderness, and witness traces of wild bears. Note – this is basically the same as the bear conservation tour listed under eco-volunteering, but with a different company.

Spain

Watching bears in northern Spain

A year in the life of a bear

March-April: bears emerge from hibernation, including cubs taking their first look at the outside world. All they want to do in spring is eat, to rebuild the reserves lost through the long winter sleep.

May to July: mating season, when males persistently follow females everywhere.

August-October: it is eating season again, as bears fatten up in preparation for hibernation.

More information about bears on the Euronatur website

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