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Extraordinary owl bonanza in Norwich’s twin city of Novi Sad

PUBLISHED: 11:45 21 February 2016 | UPDATED: 12:07 21 February 2016

Looking at you: A long-eared owl at a roost in Melenci.

Looking at you: A long-eared owl at a roost in Melenci.

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Norfolk nature writer MARK COCKER visits Norwich’s twin city and discovers it is full of owl magic...

Outside The Hotel 20 in Kikinda there were 27 long-eared owls in two trees.Outside The Hotel 20 in Kikinda there were 27 long-eared owls in two trees.

My guess is that, like me, you’ve probably read the signs on the approach roads to Norwich. You may well have also crossed the city’s swing footbridge that links both sides of the Wensum near the new Riverside development. Yet have you ever stopped to reflect on Novi Sad, whose twinning with Norwich is celebrated on those signs and whose 40-year association with Norfolk has given the name, the Friendship Bridge, to that Riverside crossing? I must confess, I never had.

Well, not until I actually saw Novi Sad itself as we sped through the countryside of northern Serbia, where the city is located. Then I began to appreciate the landscape similarities and geographical links that underlie our historic connection.

Like Norwich, Novi Sad is the capital of its own province Vojvodina, an agricultural area that seems even flatter than Norfolk. The Serbian city is similar in size to its English twin and is still the second largest urban area in the country, a status that Norwich enjoyed in the Middle Ages and has since lost. Both places are also characterised by winding rivers but, while the Wensum and Yare carry water out of half of Norfolk, the River Danube drains most of eastern Europe. This extraordinary waterway becomes a mile and half wide after it passes through Novi Sad.

Another natural link that I wish Norwich shared with its Serbian counterpart is its owls. It was these extraordinary birds that lured us to the area in the middle of winter. Just to the north-east of the city was the little town of Melenci, an entirely undistinguished settlement, except that every tree in the streets seemed to have several pairs of orange eyes glaring down upon us.

The marshy landscapes of Vojvodina resembled the Norfolk Broads, except at -10 degrees everywhere and everything was coated in sparkling rime.The marshy landscapes of Vojvodina resembled the Norfolk Broads, except at -10 degrees everywhere and everything was coated in sparkling rime.

They belong to long-eared owls, a species that is famous for passing their winter days in a roost. You can occasionally find the same thing in Norfolk: perhaps three to four birds hunched together in a thick bush. In Melenci there were a dozen owls in the trees on the high street and just at the back of a block of flats were a dozen more.

This was impressive but it was nothing compared to the place that was our primary destination. Kikinda is a lovely provincial town north-east of Novi Sad and boasts what is probably the largest gathering of owls anywhere on the planet. The roost can be anywhere between 350-750 birds. On arrival we were astonished to find 27 long-eared owls in two trees just outside our remarkably comfortable and modestly priced hotel. Along the fence line of the nearby infants school there were 30 more.

Eventually we realised that the birds were everywhere: by the church, outside the cafe, all along the trees that lined the main pedestrianised shopping street. One nice touch was a group of them near the town museum, where the Christmas decorations were still illuminated and among whose features was a pair of replica neon owls.

Eventually, like the good citizens of Kikinda walking to work or to their lessons, we came to take the birds in our stride. Yet its residents are also deeply proud of them. Every November they hold a five-day festival with shows, plays, exhibitions and drawing or art competitions, all of which include participation from more than 2,000 schoolchildren. Their involvement is perhaps not surprising, given that the chemistry lab at one gymnasium had an owl roost at eye level.

What is most impressive about the local response is that it mingles celebration with deep tolerance. To have several hundred birds spend the whole day over your head involves an inevitable risk. Some of the park benches were almost white as a consequence. But I wonder if it is doubly good luck to be so blessed by an owl?

The Kikinda roost is wonderful but the overall population in the surrounding area of Vojvodina is even more impressive. The wintering total in 2008/9 was estimated at 28,000 owls in more than 400 separate sub-roosts. Research into the origins of the birds suggests that they are almost all locally breeding.

This census work has allowed the researchers from BirdLife Serbia to make calculations about the abundance of their prey. In a single winter the birds are consuming about 35 million voles, but over an entire annual cycle they take in the order of 150 million mammals. The sheer abundance of prey speaks eloquently about the rich native grassland environment that is such a major part of the northern Serbian landscape.

That country is just emerging from all the negative consequences and the public-image disaster of its civil war. Like it neighbours, Bulgaria and Romania, Serbia will no doubt seek at some point to join the European Union. The real challenge will be to undertake all those developments without losing the things that make this region so special. For now, however, Norfolk’s Serbian twin remains owl heaven.

I can vouch that there are few wildlife sights more special than the ice-blue skies above Kikinda, the silhouetted trees all sparkling white with hoar frost at –10 ºC below, and two dozen owls, fluffed out and contented as they all dream in the winter sunshine.

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