Although the Republic of Macedonia is largely unknown to those of us in western Europe with an interest in natural history, it is an extremely rich and exciting wildlife destination. The most southerly of the six republics that were previously a part of Yugoslavia, Macedonia boasts an impressive variety of habitats and scenery, from the high, forested peaks of the Baba Mountains to the hot, rolling plains of Pelagonia. This hidden jewel of the Balkans is also one of Europe’s very best destinations for butterflies. To date, over 200 species have been recorded in this small, land-locked country and we can expect to see around half of these on this pioneering tour, as well as an exciting diversity of birds and other wildlife. Our holiday is timed to coincide with the peak butterfly season — a time when the mountains should be clear of snow and full of the higher altitude species, yet before the heat of the lowlands really kicks in. Highlights will be many and varied, but may include such delights as Balkan Fritillary, Macedonian Grayling, Grecian Copper, Little Tiger Blue, Russian Heath, Balkan Marbled White and Lattice Brown.
We begin our holiday with a flight to Skopje, the capital of Macedonia, which sits on the banks of the Vardar River. Here we will meet our local guide before driving to Kavadarci an hour or so away. From this historic town, where we will be based for our first three nights, we will explore the lowland habitats in the vicinity of the beautiful Vardar Valley: the dry limestone hills bisected by the Babuna, Demir Kapija and other gorges … and the rough fields, pastures and wooded river valleys that provide a mosaic of habitats rich in butterflies, birds and other wildlife. Typical butterflies include Tufted Marbled Skipper, Zephr and Chapman’s Blues, Southern Comma, Delattin’s Grayling, Twinspot and Marbled Fritillaries and Lesser Purple Emperor. There is also the chance of a late Eastern Festoon! The birdlife is equally diverse and, with colourful Beeeaters hawking for insects overhead and Woodchat Shrikes and Rollers adorning roadside wires, we will be looking out for Black Stork, Griffon Vulture, Eastern Imperial Eagle, Booted Eagle, Rufous-tailed Rock Thrush, Subalpine Warbler, Eastern Olivaceous Warbler, Black-headed Bunting and such east European specialities as Masked Shrike, Levant Sparrowhawk, Western Rock Nuthatch and Olive-tree Warbler. There will also be the opportunity to learn about Macedonia’s fascinating history with a visit to the ancient Roman ruins of Stobi, the best preserved archaeological site in the country.
For the second half of our holiday, we will move to the historic town of Bitola in south-western Macedonia. Set at the foot of the Baba Mountains, which rise to nearly 2,500 metres, Bitola will be our base for our final four nights as we turn our attention to the upland wildlife of the Pelister National Park and Galicica Plateau. The region’s excellent network of roads and tracks will allow us to explore a range of altitudes from the forested lower slopes of the mountains to heights of 1,500 metres. Here, far above the tree-line, the scenery is spectacular and we can look down upon Lakes Ohrid and Prespa, the two largest natural lakes in the Balkans. At this altitude the alpine meadows should still be awash with a colourful display of rare plants including Asphodeline liburnica, Silene longiflora, Viola orphanidis, Greek Hellebore (Heleborus cyclophyllus) and Rindera Graeca. Such a wide range of altitudes will offer us a wonderful variety of butterflies, amongst them Powdered Brimstone, Eastern Wood White, Esper’s Marbled White, Balkan Copper, Ripart’s Anomalous Blue, Eastern Short-tailed Blue, Great Sooty Satyr, Balkan Fritillary, Freyer’s Fritillary and Yellow-banded Skipper. This is also one of the few places in Europe where Grey Asian Grayling can be found during the summer months. Birds to look for include Eastern Bonelli’s Warbler, Syrian Woodpecker, Black-eared Wheatear, Alpine Accentor, Rock Bunting and Water Pipit, and we must ensure that our eyes are turned skyward from time to time in case a Golden Eagle should drift by.
During our time in the mountains we will take a short break from the butterflies, birds and other wildlife to visit the small historic town of Ohrid, a UNESCO World Heritage Site set on the shores of the lake with the same name. Finally, we must return to the Macedonian capital of Skopje where we say farewell to this beautiful, unspoiled corner of the Balkans and embark on our journey home.