About Me

My photo
Long-term (1989 to date) Italian resident, originally from UK, I'm an ex-teacher, passionate naturalist and environmentalist who works as a wildlife tour-guide and translator.

Saturday, 5 March 2016

The New DOPPS visitor centre at Škocjanski Zatok - Val Stagnon, Koper - Capodistria, Slovenia.

This post is coming out a bit late as I've been offline for a few days after some clown cut the phone cable to about 800 houses. Domen beat me to it with his post here (with more and better bird pictures).

It's pretty clear where a lot of the funding has come from.

On Wednesday (02/03/2016) I was at the inauguration of the new DOPPS visitor centre at Škocjanski Zatok - Val Stagnon on the outskirts of Koper - Capodistria, Slovenia's 3rd city and only port. Everybody who knows me is aware I have been a great admirer of DOPPS, Birdlife International's partner in Slovenia, since I became aware of their work around the time of the break-up of Yugoslavia. They are immensely professional, achieving huge amounts over the decades with limited resources and endless commitment.

Radipole Lake, Dorset, UK (l.) and Škocjanski Zatok, Koper, Slovenia (r.)

Squeezed between a motorway and the port of Koper, Škocjanski Zatok is a wetland site covering 122 hectares just outside the city, a small surviving piece of what was once a much larger site. To give British readers an idea, in many respects it is very like the RSPB's reserves of Belfast Lough and Radipole Lake, close-to-coastal wetlands in the urban fringe with all the problems of heavy use and potential conflicts which this entails. Until the reserve closed for the building work in late 2014 it was the main haunt for joggers from Koper. Better than doggers I suppose!?

When I arrived to live nearby in Italy in the late 1980s there seemed to be very few birds present and the large (brackish) area (Stanjolski zaliv) was covered with shooting butts used by Italian hunters. Thankfully these characters have now largely gone from Slovenia (they pay to shoot the odd mallard, pheasant and partridge elsewhere) but are still a major issue in Croatia, Serbia and more recently in Bosnia-Herzegovina. 

An Istrian Ox or Boškarin and a Cattle Egret (summer picture, photo Domen Stanič)

Now the birds are back and the freshwater section of the reserve is kept in tip-top condition with the help of Camargue horses and the local breed of ox, the boškarin with its own fascinating history of decline, genetic extinction and resurgence as a solid, rustic old breed, better-adapted to the local climate and conditions than more delicate but perhaps more "productive" modern cattle. The water management infrastructure is excellent and it should be possible to manage levels to perfection.

What about today? What about the visitor centre?

The main visitor centre set in an industrial estate but with the great backdrop of a
snow-capped Monte Slavnik - Taiano in NE Istria
Well it is large, err... very large and, err... architecturally challenging, an aggressive "here to stay" project. That said, it's not in a rural setting. Anything but, so perhaps it should be a bold statement given that the backdrop to the reserve consists of the huge cranes in the port of Koper, giant mountains of containers lapped by a sea of Audis destined, perhaps, for China or the Middle East. The smell of methyl mercaptan, imperceptible at the opening and harmless enough, coming from the part of the wetland that was drained and developed, takes me back to my childhood and the gravel pits in the Lea Valley. But I can't help it. The infrastructure alienates me further from its raison d'être. The birds.

Cranes 'n' cranes. At about 2pm on inauguration day the reserve was 'blessed' with a flock of about 200 cranes passing over the Visitor Centre, trumpetting. The 'augurs' were a sort of Roman high priest of good luck. One was said to his work "Agere augurium, aves specit" - "to conduct the augurium, he observed the birds". The Ancient Greeks too practised Ornithomancy. On that basis the future of Škocjanski Zatok is very rosy indeed! (r.h. photo Domen Stanič)
And here's the rub. I live close to what is probably Italy's finest reserve for birding, Isola della Cona. There is a bird list of 325 species, up there with the Coto Doñana and the Carmargue. Considering how nearby it is, I rarely visit unless I'm working there. Why? It might provide me with a rapid 50 species of birds on virtually any day of the year, but the hides, visitor centre, 'tea-shop' and hogging footpaths leave me, spiritually, rather cold - a process I call "the suburbanisation of birding" and one I'll talk more about in another blog. I think this is a common sentiment in a certain type of naturalist, the one that takes a day out for more than just a list, or great views of birds close-up. No. There's more to it than that. Tim Dee deals with it very well in this article from the New York Times when talking about, without naming, the new RSPB reserve at Lakenheath.
Lucky young DOPPSers enjoying the sun and the new visitor centre

It's important I finish this blog being upbeatand positive. The buildings are beautiful and functional. There was a great crowd and I'm sure the bar and shop will do a roaring trade so close to the city and so close to Trieste. Whatever an old ex-pat. fart says or thinks, banging on about the "the suburbanisation of birding" or feels in his 'se stava mejo quando se stava pezo'* head, it matters not a jot. I wish DOPPS every success with the magnificent new visitor centre and the thousands of lucky schoolkids who will get to visit it each and every year. There was certainly nothing like that for us when we were young. Well done DOPPS!

To re-set my brain, to de-suburbanise it and get everything back in perspective, without EU project financing and disabled access, cream teas and T-shirts in the gift shop I set off with Domen in search of one of Europe's more elusive birds. I've had no luck with this species at all this winter and I better get some soon as I'm supposed to be showing it to people next week. Domen's hunch was correct. There it was in all its glory. If I were an ornithomancer I would say my luck's changed. We'll see.

Wednesday's Wallcreeper (Tichodroma muraria) - photo Domen Stanič
*"things were better when things were worse".


  1. Smashing blog, Paul. Chris Durdin

    1. Thank you Chris. It does indeed appear as if my luck might have changed. A quick trip to Doberdò this p.m. (Sun.) produced 5 species of woodpecker in ten minutes (black, green, grey-headed, great spotted and lesser spotted. Roll on next week!

  2. Agree with you that DOPPS is doing great job. Now, I usually agree with you on most things but your link to the pretentious nonsense written by Tim Dee got me rather irritated. Surely we all agree that reserves should be as wild as possible and should enable people to connect with nature. But if you want to re-create wetland in the pump-drained fens these days you need to carefully manage water. Lakenheath is on peat and sand and water is re-cirulated as it seeps out of the site. Once the site is larger, it will become more natural. Lakenheath is wet and full of birds. If you go down the more 'natural' line, as at Great Fen, you end up with a site drier than a bean fart that delivers very little. You take your choice.. On the people front, Lakenheath has just one hide. The path network is carefully managed to open up long and short views into the habitat. Has Tim Dee ever been to Lakenheath? There, had my say! Keep up the good blog work.

  3. Nice post Paul. DOPPS has made a great effort to bring the reserve infraestructure up to modern standards. The new state-of-the-art central watchtower is awesome! However I cannot stop thinking that the site has become more humanised with those tall buildings dominating the scene, in a way is now less wild, if one can say so. Anyways, I hope it brings more breeding birds and a secure future. Please keep posting. Dani Bosch

    1. Thanks Daniel. I popped in y'day (13/3) and it was full of people in spite of a very strong bora.

    2. Very popular indeed Paul, particularly on weekends. Also lots of bird activity: Garganey, Redshank and Swallow 16/03, LR Plover 17/03, BW Stilt and Spotted Crake 21/03, Great Bittern 24/03, Wheatear 30/03, and probably many more I missed. Cheers.