The natural world is a wondrous thing. We’re lucky to have one of the world’s largest flying birds, the Dalmatian Pelican, with its 3m wide wingspan, as a resident species at our base, Lake Skadar. These giants of the sky take centre stage whenever we catch a glimpse, whether it’s on the school run or out on tour.
In the Springtime, pelicans can often be spotted fishing and feeding by the lake’s main settlement, Virpazar. We had an incredible chance meeting with a group of 22 just the other day as Ben and I edged our kayak through the rushes by Virpazar port. There they were, quietly bobbing on the water, surrounded by more than a hundred of their fishing buddies, the Pygmy Cormorant. Watching them reminded us what an amazing place we adopted as our home 13 years ago. Back then, though, spotting Dalmatian Pelican anywhere outside their remote breeding area just didn’t happen. Numbers were seriously depleted, with the species classified as endangered on IUCN’s red list.
Fast forward to May 2021 and Lake Skadar’s pelican population may be close to 300 or more (this year’s census is still on-going!).* It’s a brilliant result for conservation work now in its fifth year, helping them breed more successfully using artificial rafts and with video monitoring to ward against human threats. We’ve been glad to be a part of this project over the years, helping out with donations and as volunteers and friends of the “team” (a diverse group of local and international partners united by one goal – ensuring Lake Skadar’s pelicans can thrive).
It’s because of this close relationship and our commitment as responsible tourism practitioners that we’ve been able to pioneer a very special eco-tour indeed – kayaking to Lake Skadar’s pelican breeding colony – in careful coordination with the National Park.
Our first visit to the ‘Pančeva Oka’ (the Pelican’s Pool) colony, back in 2014, blew us away. We went with our friend Andrej Vizi, ornithologist, curator of the Natural History Museum of Montenegro, lead researcher of Montenegro’s Dalmatian Pelican and (back then) novice kayaker. Our mission – to find a way to approach and watch the pelicans without causing them to feel threatened. Kayaks turned out to be perfect! Silent and slow moving, we paddled along a narrow water-trail with floating fields of water lily either side to reach the rushes concealing the pelicans’ lair. That time we counted around 30 birds, more than we’d ever seen. Birdsong filled the air and with a myriad of other bird species also present to enjoy. The whole trip was stunning – a nature experience which, for us, was right up there with observing orangutans in Sumatra.
Those 30 pelicans pale in comparison with the 316 birds our eldest son counted this weekend on our first 2021 visit to the colony. Junior’s only 10 and in his excitement possibly double counted more than a few birds. There’s no question, though, that Lake Skadar’s Dalmatian Pelican numbers have rocketed in recent years, a tremendous achievement which shows conservation measures work.
Lake Skadar’s pelican explosion is to the benefit of everyone who loves these quirky giant birds, but especially for local people. When numbers are greater, pelicans are more likely to be seen and admired all over the lake, not just at their colony which is strictly protected and thankfully hard to find unless you know where (and we’re not telling!). The nature tourism potential is huge as long as it’s carefully and sustainably managed. As they say here in Montenegro: Poštuj. Posmatraj. Podrži (Respect. Observe. Protect).
When it comes to conservation, what has been won can quickly be lost. Threats to the pelicans still remain, almost all human in form. The odd fishing boat still passes too close to the nesting area (strictly forbidden); we’ve even sadly seen an occasional jet ski or speed boat chase the birds against all national park rules. But with continued support and community engagement, things are going the right way.
Andrej told us that Lake Skadar has the capacity to host more than a thousand breeding pairs. Imagine what an attraction that would be, delighting nature tourists and photographers! In the meantime, to see Lake Skadar’s pelicans in any great number, you’ll have to get lucky and join one of our limited availability kayaking tours. They run in late May and June only, once the chicks are big enough and before the lake’s tranquil waters become too shallow to paddle in this wildly beautiful spot.
Watch our video for a virtual tour of the trip!
Five Fun Facts About Lake Skadar’s Pelicans
- The Dalmatian Pelican is the symbol of Lake Skadar National Park
- Pelicans have nested at this location for more than a century and were first recorded in 1891
- Although it’s sometimes claimed by locals that Lake Skadar is the only nesting site of Dalmatian Pelican in Europe, this isn’t actually true. They also roost in Greece, Romania and Albania. We like to say instead that Lake Skadar is the most beautiful nesting site of Dalmatian Pelican in Europe (wink).
- Dalmatian Pelican were almost wiped out here in the late 1990s and early 2000s, with no nesting recorded.
- These are the heaviest flying waterbirds in the world, weighing 10 kilos on average!