Macedonia is largely unknown but an extremely rich butterfly destination. A landlocked country nestled amidst mountains has varied habitats of which we explore the best samples.
Besides good weather we also need to come in the right season to find most of the species listed below. Low-lying areas will be already desiccated by summer sun while mountains should look fresh and provide much nectar to the myriad of butterflies.
Largely unknown to Western European naturalists, Macedonia is an extremely rich and exciting wildlife destination. The most southerly of the group of republics that comprised the former Yugoslavia, it is a landlocked country nestling amidst mountains and with rolling and generally unspoilt scenery. Still largely agricultural, Macedonia boasts an impressive diversity of habitats and is one of Europe’s best destinations for those interested in butterflies, as well as being outstanding for birds and flora. We will explore some of the best butterfly habitats in search of the country’s flagship species, as well as enjoying many of the other wildlife and floral treats on offer. Our tour is timed to coincide with the peak butterfly season, with the low-lying areas already steeped in summer heat, but when the mountains should still be fresh and full of the high altitude nectar-rich plants on which the more unusual montane butterflies depend.
Wildlife is everywhere in Macedonia – the country has been likened to a huge, continuous nature reserve – and the most casual stop at the side of the road rarely fails to provide an exciting variety of insects, plants and birds. The scenery throughout is stunning. We will spend most of our time in the southwest of this small country, where the most spectacular and diverse mountain ranges are found. In terms of butterflies, it is hard to choose the highlight species from the more than 200 that have been recorded in Macedonia to date. Perhaps Grey Asian and Macedonian Grayling, Grecian Copper, Bavius and Little Tiger Blue, Krueper´s Small White, Balkan Clouded Yellow, Russian Heath, Balkan Marbled White or Lattice Brown rank most highly. Equally noteworthy are the supporting cast of birds, especially raptors (we should see up to 20 species), the diverse landscapes, stunning displays of wildflowers, welcoming local people and fascinating cultural and heritage sites, some of which we shall visit as we travel around the country.
A total of about 100 butterfly species can be expected on this tour, along with an equal number of birds and plants. Our guide will be Dime Melovski, a young and enthusiastic butterfly expert and conservationist who has travelled all over Macedonia confirming old butterfly records and filling in the gaps in the less well-surveyed parts of the country. As ever with plant- and wildlife-spotting, the pace will be gentle, with easy exploration on foot and with access to the high-altitude sites possible by car, from where we will wander over the upland meadows looking for birds, butterflies and other wildlife.
9 days | 3 hotels (1–4–3 nights)
dates: 26 June – 03 July 2020
ground cost: €1190
single room supplement: €135
guide: Dime Melovski
airport: Skopje, Macedonia
group size: 4–14
number of butterfly species: around 100 – 130
2014 trip report available on request
Itinerary in brief
D1 Arrival at Skopje
D2 Suva Gora Mts.
D3 Galichitsa NP
D3 Pelister NP by 4wd
D5 Galichitsa NP and Ohrid town
D6 Pletvar pass, Mariovo
D7 Vardar river valley
D8 Vitachevo plateau
D9 Babuna gorge, departure from Skopje
Stunning Balkan landscapes
Unspoilt nature and beautiful landscapes
Pseudochazara graylings (Macedonian and Grey Asian)
Krueper´s Small and Eastern Wood White
Balkan Clouded Yellow
Grecian and Lesser Fiery Copper
Blue and Geranium Argus
Lang´s Short-tailed Blue
Little Tiger, Zephyr, Osiris, Anomalous and Damon Blue
Balkan and Freyer´s Fritillary
Balkan and Esper´s Marbled White
Great Sooty Satyr
Russian and Eastern Large Heath
Lattice and Lesser Lattice Brown
Yellow-banded and Persian Skipper
Sandy Grizzled Skipper
Ancient town of Stobi
Birds, wildflowers and moth trapping
DAY 1 Arrival in Skopje
After arrival at Alexander the Great Airport in Skopje, we will drive to the town of Veles, a journey usually taking less than one hour. Depending on the flight arrival time, we may be able to stop somewhere en route for some wildlife spotting. Veles is set on the Vardar river and is surrounded by bare limestone hills, and we will stay for our first two nights near a small reservoir six miles or so from the town. This is an excellent place for butterflies, as well as dragonflies like Bladetail, Ornate Bluet, Lesser Emperor and Broad Scarlet, and we should also start to see typical Macedonian birds such as Bee-eater, Black-headed Bunting and Woodchat Shrike.
DAY 2 The Babuna gorge and Vardar river valley
A short walk from a village largely inhabited by Bosnian Muslims since Tito´s communist regime prevented them from emigrating to Greece, will take us into excellent butterfly habitat. The surrounding areas are well grazed by sheep and there is a variety of wildlife-rich habitats, including dry limestone hills, rough fields, the narrow river valley
and the Babuna gorge itself. Typical butterflies include Oriental and Tufted Marbled Skippers, Oberthur’s Grizzled Skipper, Lesser Fiery and Grecian Coppers, Little Tiger, Zephyr, Anomalous, Chapman’s, Meleager´s and Iolas Blues, Lesser Purple Emperor, Southern Comma, Marbled and Twin-spot Fritillaries and graylings such as Great Banded, White Banded, Delattin´s and Southern. This location is especially good for specialities such as Krueper´s Small White, Inky Skipper, Bavius Blue and Freyer´s Grayling, and there is also a chance of a late Southern or Eastern Festoon, as well as the second generation of butterflies that first appear in early spring, such as Mountain and Southern Small White.
The wider area includes the scenic Veles gorge and is rich in birds. We will be on the look out for exciting raptors such as Eastern Imperial Eagle, Egyptian Vulture and Booted Eagle, with a supporting cast that includes Roller, Hoopoe, Cirl Bunting, Rock Partridge and Red-rumped Swallow. Interesting plants we might see during the first two
days include Salvia ringens, yellow thistles Centaurea solstitialis and salonitana, Carthamus baeticus, Lilium candidum, Stachys alopecurus, Acanthus spinosus and Consolida orientalis.
Butterflies likely to be found are Oriental and Tufted Marbled Skipper, Oberthür´s Grizzled Skipper, Lesser Fiery and Grecian Copper, Little Tiger, Zephyr, Anomalous, Chapman´s, Meleager´s and Iolas Blue, Lesser Purple Emperor, Marbled and Twin-spot Fritillary or graylings that could be represented by Great Banded, White Banded, Delattin´s and Southern Grayling.
DAY 3 Stobi, the Vardar river valley and Demir Kapija gorge
Our first stop this morning will be at Stobi, the ancient ruins of a Paeonian (Roman) town. After viewing the beautiful mosaics there we will continue to the Demir Kapija gorge via the arid valleys that are associated with the River Vardar. These valleys are excellent for many species of bird and butterfly, as well as other large insects and
reptiles, including tortoises. Olive-tree and Sardinian Warblers are typical birds here, but they may be tricky to locate this late in the season. Much easier to find will be Bee-eater, Woodchat and Lesser Grey Shrikes and Black-eared Wheatear. Areas of short grass and bare ground are great for watching larger insects like the giant cricket Bradyporus dasypus, long-horned beetles and, above all, butterflies. Lesser Fiery Copper, Southern White Admiral, Southern or Delattin´s Grayling and Little Tiger Blue are just a few of the species we hope to see there. We will probably spend the rest of the day near the Demir Kapija gorge and Klisura village. The gorge hosts several typical species of rockbreeding birds such as Egyptian Vulture, Blue Rock Thrush, Rock Nuthatch, Crag Martin, Alpine Swift and Peregrine, and also serves as a flight corridor for larger species, especially raptors. We will take a walk of about a mile, during which we will hope to find butterflies such as Balkan Marbled White and Large Tortoiseshell, dragonflies such as Blue-eyed Goldenring, and birds including Griffon Vulture, Booted Eagle, Subalpine Warbler, Hawfinch and, above all, Masked Shrike, one of Macedonia’s flagship species.
Our last stop of the day will be at a village where some 100 pairs of Lesser Kestrel breed – they return to their nest sites in the village roofs around 6pm, after feeding in the neighbouring fields. Dinner in Kavadarci town park to a backdrop of calling Scops Owls should provide a nice finale to the day!
DAY 4 The Raec river, Pletvar pass and Treskavec monastery
We leave Kavadarci in the morning and travel south via the town of Prilep. Although we will only cover about 100 kilometres in total, there are many tempting sites to stop at en route and it might be a long day! Our first stop could well be on the slopes above the Raec river, where some interesting butterfly species fly. Iolas Blue should be easy to spot and with luck we may find a Southern White Admiral, Yellow-banded Skipper or Osiris Blue. The local gorge is a nesting site for Long-legged Buzzard, Egyptian Vulture, Black Stork and both species of Rock Thrush. Our main goal this day, however, will be the limestone Pletvar massif. One of the local specialities here is Speckled Wood (such northern species are often rare in Macedonia!), but the real treat for us will be the country’s only endemic butterfly – Macedonian Grayling. We will start our exploration at a marble quarry, which supports typical limestone flora on pastures with scattered trees, before driving up to 3000 feet above sea level. At this altitude we have a chance to see butterflies like Eastern Greenish Black-tip, a spring species in the lowlands, as well as
birds such as Rock Thrush and Ortolan Bunting. Several interesting plants could be in bloom, including Pyramidal, Burnt-tip, Bog and Pink Butterfly Orchids, Campanula formanekiana, Loegusia speculum-veneri, Vicia onobrychoides, Astragalus sericophyllus, Viola allchariensis, Onobrychis alba and Anchusa serpenticola. Regular mid-summer
butterflies here include Mountain and Krueper´s Small Whites, Lesser Fiery Copper, Eastern Short-tailed, Alcon, Damon, Anomalous, Amanda´s and Turquoise Blues, Cardinal, Marbled, Twin-spot and Lesser Spotted Fritillaries, Southern White Admiral, Balkan Marbled White, White-banded, Southern, and Great Banded Graylings, Great Sooty Satyr, The Hermit, Eastern Large Heath, Hungarian, Lulworth, Tufted Marbled, Oberthur´s Grizzled and Sandy Grizzled Skippers.
We will also pay a visit to the beautifully set 12th-century Treskavec Monastery, with wonderful views of the Dren Mountains and over the Pelagonia plain and where only one monk now lives. Finally, time permitting, we will visit a village down on the plain where two or three dozen White Storks breed on the roofs alongside Spanish Sparrows, Lesser Kestrels and Little Owls. Hoopoe and Montagu´s Harrier are also regular in the area.
DAY 5 Pelister National Park
Pelister NP (or the Baba Mountains) is an impressive mountain range stretching between Macedonia and Greece, with extensive alpine meadows on the Macedonian side and is notable for being one of the southernmost ranges in the Balkans with an alpine character. The highest peak of Pelister (from the ancient Greek peristera, meaning pigeon) reaches almost 8000 feet and the mountains overlook the ancient city of Bitola. They are the watershed of the region, with their rivers flowing towards both the Adriatic and Aegean Seas. We drive up in an off-road vehicle to reach the flatter grassy areas on the mountain tops, where we wander on foot. Pelister has several butterfly species that are difficult to find elsewhere in Macedonia, including Balkan Clouded Yellow, Balkan Fritillary, Black and Ottoman Brassy Ringlet and Grecian Grayling. There are also species of ringlets such as Arran Brown, Mountain, Ottoman Brassy, Large and Woodland Ringlet. Surprisingly, Marsh Fritillary flies high above the treeline here, together with more expected species like Esper´s Marbled White, Eros Blue, Balkan Copper, Mountain and Blue Argus.
Other excitements might include high-altitude birds like Alpine Accentor, Water Pipit, Golden Eagle and Alpine Chough, while Nutcrackers are common in the forest. Plants include Buxbaumia viridis, Alchemilla pelisterica, Alkanna pulmonaria, Lilium albanicum, Dianthus myrtinervius, Pedicularis orthantha and limnogena, Ranunculus incomparabilis, Viola orphanidis, velutina and eximia. Flying below the treeline are many commoner mountain butterflies such as Clouded Apollo, Black-veined White, Large, Turquoise and Adonis Blues, Marbled and High Brown Fritillaries, Northern Wall Brown, Camberwell Beauty, Large Tortoiseshell, Gatekeeper, Russian Heath, Large Grizzled, Hungarian, Mallow and Tufted Marbled Skippers. With luck, we can also find Poplar Admiral and Balkan Marbled White here.
DAYS 6–7 Galicica Plateau
We will start the day with a visit to the town of Ohrid, set on the lake of the same name and with a history going back two millennia. A UNESCO World Heritage Site, the town was settled by the Romans and, later, the Ottoman Turks, and its architectural heritage is superb, with an old fortress, amphitheatre, orthodox churches and mosques all contained within one small area. From Ohrid we will drive to the high elevation Galicica Plateau, another national park and which we have two days to explore. As at Pelister, we should find the meadows at 5000 feet still blooming with rare plants such as Alkanna nonneiformis, Astragalus mayeri and baldacii, Lilium albanicum, Dianthus myrtinervius, Scrophularia canina, Anchusa serpenticola, Sideritis raeseri, Nepeta ernesti-mayeri, Eryngium serbicum, Rindera graeca and Viola orphanidis. Other plant highights include several orchids (Red and Small-leaved Helleborine, Violet Limodore, Lady Orchid and Orchis pinetorum), as well as Iris sintenisii and germanica, Scutellaria altissima,
Onosma echioides, Silene longiflora and Helleborus cyclophyllus. The scenery is breathtaking, with stunning views of Lake Ohrid and the Prespa lakes, the two biggest natural lakes in the Balkans. On our first day here we will stop and explore the wooded slopes along the winding road up to the plateau, with our second day reserved for the extensive flower-rich meadows up on the plateau proper.
The butterfly list here could be really impressive and include most, if not all, of the following species: Apollo
and Clouded Apollo, Eastern Festoon, Blackveined White, Powdered Brimstone, Eastern Wood White, Ilex Hairstreak, Balkan and Lesser Fiery Copper, Alcon, Osiris, Eastern Short-tailed and Provencal Short-tailed Blue, Chequered, Zephyr, Turquoise, Eros, Meleager’s, Escher’s, Damon and Anomalous Blue, Grecian Anomalous and Ripart’s Anomalous Blue, Blue and Geranium Argus, Marsh, Freyer’s (see above left), Twin-spot and Balkan Fritillary, Esper’s Marbled and Balkan Marbled White, Freyer’s, Woodland, Eastern Rock, White-banded and Delattin’s Grayling, The Hermit, Great Sooty Satyr, Dusky Meadow and Oriental Meadow Brown, Black and Bright-eyed Ringlet, Eastern Large Heath, Northern Wall Brown, Lattice Brown and Lesser Lattice Brown, Lulworth, Persian, Sandy Grizzled, Oriental Marbled and Yellow-banded Skipper.
This is also one of the few places in Europe where Grey Asian Grayling is found, and birdwise we can look for Rock Bunting, Rock Thrush and Rock Partridge.
DAY 8 Sar Planina Mountains
This morning we will set off for Sar Planina, and in about two hours will reach the town of Tetovo, where we will stop to visit the painted mosque of Sharena Dzhamiya. Set at the foot of the Sar Planina, Tetovo is the starting point for the Popova Shapka ski resort, where we will spend our last day in the field. We should see more high altitude butterflies here and also an outstanding selection of alpine birds: Shore Lark, Snowfinch, Alpine Accentor, Water Pipit, Red-billed and Alpine Choughs, Ring Ouzel, Rock Thrush and Wallcreeper are all possible. Both Rock Partridge and Corncrake are also widespread here. Plantlife is excellent and early July is just the right season to see some of the best species. We will be on the lookout for Dianthus scardicus, Linaria alpina, Narthecium scardicum, Sideritis scardica, Silene schmuckeri and ciliata, Ranunculus degenii, Lilium albanicum, Pedicularis oederi, Pedicularis ferdinandi, Gentiana verna, Geranium cinereum, Ranunculus crenatus, Geum montanum, Crocus scardicus and Sempervivum kosaninii, a wonderful array of wildflowers to enjoy on our last full day in Macedonia.
DAY 9 Departure
Time to say farewell to this beautiful unspoilt corner of the Balkans, with an early drive from our hotel in Popova Shapka to the airport in Skopje and our flight home.