Exploring the Natural Wonders of the Neretva Valley with Mr Bariša Ilić, a much loved ornithologist of Dalmatia
Once again, my family was drawn to the call of Neretva and decided to visit the south of Croatia, and the magical Neretva river valley near Dubrovnik. The area is home to a vast bird reserve and serves as a migratory path for many birds. So, my mother and I decided to seek out someone who could tell us more about the area and the birds that inhabit or pass through it.
Everyone we spoke to immediately recommended Mr Bariša Ilić, who is known throughout the Neretva valley and beyond for his love of nature and his expertise on birds. Mr Bariša is the president and founder of the Ornithological Society Brkata Sjenica, which has been working for many years to care for the well-being of the birds in the region. He is dedicated to preserving natural habitats, helping injured birds, and educating others about birds. He also takes beautiful photographs of birds, rings them, and devotes a lot of his time to working with the next generation.
Mr Bariša was happy to accept our invitation to spend a week with us in the Neretva valley, where he shared his knowledge and passion for birds with us. He knows the exact number of each species in the area, their Latin and English names, and where their nests are located. He is also becoming an expert in mycology and can tell you about the wild orchids of the Neretva valley. He is a true part of the habitat, and his love for the sea, the Neretva River, and the Neretva valley is evident in everything he does.
People often ask in interviews why the ornithological society is called the Bearded Arbor. The society chose this name because the bearded reedling, or moustached bowerbird, is a bird that can only be found in the Neretva valley and is difficult to see due to its elusive nature. It is a species that is particularly associated with the reeds in this area, which is located in the coastal part of Croatia.
I never expected to learn how to ring birds. Observing and ringing birds is a challenging job, but I learned a lot about the data and measurements that are taken during monitoring and ringing, as well as what a ring actually is. A ring is essentially a bird’s passport, containing a serial number and data collected by Mr. Barisa, which can be read by other scientists to track the bird’s path, condition, and other information.
The way that Mr Barisa handles the birds is truly amazing. When taking them off of the net, to us it looked like they would be stuck there, but he taught us that it is completely safe. The nets are specifically designed to catch the birds, but also not to injure them. As we approached the net for the first time, we were very surprised to see that there were many birds attached, yet very few of them were calling. Those that did stopped as soon as Mr Barisa picked them up. It feels like the birds knew that they would be safe with him, they never complained, let him check everything, including their weight, wind length, and their fat reserves on a scale 1-8. All these details help ornithologists around the world when they find the birds that Mr. Barisa ringed, as it tells them if they were healthy at the time and even what they were doing in the area and many educated conclusions are made so we can minimise our impact on the bird’s life and serve them and stay out of their ways as much as that is possible. Monitoring is extremely important, as all changes are observed and noticed and it is seen if any interference is needed.
Mr Barisa even allowed me to hold and release many of the birds that were caught and observed. At first, I was very scared, I thought that I might break their legs, but Mr. Barisa assured me that if I hold them right, they are perfectly safe. I am sure that I need some more practice with that as as soon as Mr Barisa passed them to me, they started to complain and try to fly away! This just shows how amazing Mr Barisa is and that he truly has a unique relationship with the wildlife of Neretva valley.
Despite the challenges, Mr Barisa and his team are very dedicated and often spend long hours in the field, depending on which birds they are observing. Mr Barisa admits that after so many years, it’s not always easy to get up at the crack of dawn and be out in the field all day, but he says he wouldn’t change a thing. He loves his life as it is, his sea, the birds, and his Neretva river as his constant companions.
Nika Strok Underwood