Ulcinj Salina is located in the outermost southern part of Montenegro and covers approximately 14.5 km2 of salty basins. It has been built in the region with the largest number of clear sky days and the most sunshine on the Adriatic - 2,567 hours - and the largest number of tropical days in ex-Yugoslavia. Hence, this is an ideal place for a saltpan, which in this case based its salt production exclusively on evaporation. The Salina is 1 km of air distance from the city of Ulcinj and the same distance from the border with Albania. There used to be Zogajsko blato, "Zogaj mudflats" ("zog" meaning "bird" in Albanian) in the area of the present Salina, a wetland with brackish water, which began to be significantly influenced by anthropogenic infrastructural intervention in the late 1830s. Today it is an artificial, human-managed system, where the rhythm of filling and emptying the basins with sea water, the water level and salinity are all predetermined.
Hydro-regulation of the Zogaj mudflats began in 1913, when the Port Milena drainage channel was dug. The oldest saltpans were built in the period 1926-1934. Until the middle of the 20th century, the Salina was gradually upgraded. At the beginning of the 1980s it was extended by 60 percent and today covers approximately 1,492 ha. Thus, the Ulcinj Salina was created from the sea and represents a "cultural lagoon". The saltpan basins are surrounded by channels that drain the nearby swamps and depressions, not allowing its water to be mixed with the water from the Salina, taking the water into the Port Milena channel and thereafter into the sea.
The Salina is separated from the sea by the Brijeg od mora village and Velika plaža beach, and from the Bojana River by channels and dikes against floods. It is an important part of the Lake Skadar and Bojana River watershed system. The area covers 1,000 km2. The area of the saltpans under shallow salt water is 1,383 ha (92.2%). Dikes, dividers and channels take up 109 ha (7.8%). The Ulcinj Salina is among the most important bird areas on the Adriatic. These important areas include: Beach Velika plaža, Ada Bojana Island, the Šasko and Skadar Lake and Velipoja in Albania. The Ulcinj Salina is one of the largest and newest saltpans in the Mediterranean.
Why in Ulcinj?
In the early 20th century, the Government of the Kingdom of Yugoslavia ordered the exploration of the territory with the aim of finding the optimal location for the construction of a saltpan. Research from Ankaran (today's Slovenia) to Ulcinj was performed by Guido Grisogono and Ante Koludrović. After six years of work, they selected the Zogaj mudflats, the place where the present Ulcinj Salina is located. The territory of the Zogaj mudflats swamp was significantly reduced, and today only fragments remain.
The Ulcinj Salina is filled with sea water. At the beginning of April, strong pumps (3,000 l/sec) start drawing water and sea organisms in all their development stages. The water is pumped into shallow basins with an average depth of 20-30 cm. The water, which still has the same salinity as sea water, is transferred from basin to basin mainly by gravitation. From its entry to the saltpans until crystallisation, the water travels several dozen kilometers, and under the influence of the sun and strong winds it evaporates. From the initial 3.8 g/l of salt, it reaches 235 g/l of salt at the end of production (i.e. in crystallisation basins). After this, the salt production basins remain dry and are prepared for the next season. One third of the Salina is always under water. Those basins are not included in the production process, which thus enables the proliferation of life in the waters of this lagoon. The Salina has a production capacity of 30,000 tones of salt annually. Salt is made of plain sea water, sun and wind. It is collected manually and is of high quality. The Ulcinj Salina is the best example of the synergy of economic production and nature protection in ecological Montenegro.
How to arrive
By car: from Podgorica 85 km, from Budva 68 km, from Skadar (Albania) via Sukobin 40 km
Flora and vegetation
The vegetation around the Ulcinj Salina does not vary significantly from the vegetation described in the chapter on the Tivat Salina, but the habitats are much larger. Currently, 114 plant species have been described. Besides open fields of halophytes (60 ha), there are more than 8 ha of Phragmites reed beds. Tamarisks and other woody species cover 13 ha of dikes. One of the basins in the Ulcinj Salina is not active and it represents a real museum of halophyte and wetland vegetation.
The dikes are no less interesting: meadows of orchids in the spring, mostly Ophrys bertolonii and Orchis laxiflora, give way to xenomorphic vegetation during hot summer days. Halophyte communities are very interesting due to their acclimatisation to rather severe physiological conditions of brackish soil and water. Salicornia herbacea is the dominant species in the Salicornietum herbaceae community, together with Sueda maritima, Limonium angustifolium and Atriplex portulacoides. The presence of Salsola soda and Atriplex prostrate is also important. In addition, the Arthrocnemetum fruticosi community is also sometimes recorded. Vegetation growing in the sludge of the Ulcinj Salina is mostly present in channels where the water and ground salinity is much lower. This vegetation changes with the seasons, and starts with Narcissus tarzetta and Romulea bulbocodium. Later, these give way to Avena barbata, Phragmites communis, Carex sp., Tripholium nigricens and others.
Reeds are present in channels and the group of basins where the salinity of the water is the same or twice as salty as the sea water. They are rather aggressive and have expanded more and more over the years. Tamarix africana, Juncus acutus and Juncus maritimus grow adjacent to the reeds. Beta vulgaris ssp. maritime is a species which in Montenegro lives only in the Ulcinj Salina. Ruderal vegetation is dominant on dikes as an indicator of human presence, grass cutting and continuous grazing.
Ulcinj Salina is a closed system; thus, there is no way that fish from the surrounding channels can get into the basins. Their presence is possible only if they can cross the dikes between basins, only possible for eel, or if they come directly from the sea by pumping: the powerful pumps filling the basins with sea water usually pump in eggs, larvae, or the progeny of sea organisms. Any longer organism is chopped up by the pumps' propellers. This occurs in April, when the production process starts, with the pumping of hundreds of thousands of cubic meters of sea water. Animals brought in by the pumps develop in the basins till June, when the water rapidly starts heating and the oxygen in the water falls. Some species, such as eel, dig into the sludge and wait for the first favourable situation for further development, while others perish or remain on the surface of the water where they become an easy catch for thousands of birds.
Depending on the water salinity in some basins, 23 fish species have been recorded so far. In basins where the salinity is the same as the sea water, which cover a large part of the saltpans, the following economically important fish species are recorded: various species of mullet (Mugilidae: Liza ramada, Liza saliens, Liza aurata, Chelon labrosus, Mugil cephalus), eel (Anguillidae: Anguilla anguilla), European seabass (Moronidae: Dicentrarchus labrax), and Atherinidae and Cyprinodontidae. These species are dominant by abundance. It is likely that the sea water pumped into the basins contains other coastal fish species. As salinity increases (beyond 100%) in basins and channels, only eels and killifish (Aphanius fasciatus) can be found. With further increases in salinity, only killifish (Aphanius fasciatus) remain. For a short time they can survive salinity over 250%. Thus, they may also be found in basins where crystallisation of salt begins.
Amphibians and reptiles
12 species of amphibians and 28 species of reptiles survive in hot summer conditions of the Ulcinj Salina. Amphibians barely survive in salty or fresh water channels, where they are an easy catch for numerous birds. The surrounding brackish swamps are thus an ideal habitat for them. At the opposite extreme, reptiles have their empire in the Ulcinj Salina: numerous birds make their nests and hatch their eggs along the dikes. Along with numerous insects these make ideal food for the reptiles – unless they are eaten by birds themselves. It is possible to hide in the high grass and the numerous stone walls or cavities in the dikes. The largest number of species of both groups registered in the dikes of Ulcinj Salina is vulnerable, endangered or critically endangered species according to IUCN standards.
If we were seeking for the most exclusive habitat for bird watching in the Adriatic, the Balkans or even the whole Mediterranean, the Ulcinj Salina would definitely be at the top of the list. Currently 241 bird species have been registered in this "cultural lagoon", which is 50% of the total bird species registered in Europe. In the wider region, there are habitats where the number of registered birds is even higher, but what makes the Ulcinj Salina special is the quality of species and their number. The number of birds using the Ulcinj Salina basins for breeding, wintering or resting during spring or autumn migration exceeds the threshold of 1% of the total global bird population. Amazingly, an area of 15 km2 hosts 3% of the total global population of the Dalmatian Pelican (Pelecanus crispus), 3% of the global population of the Black Tailed Godwit (Limosa limosa) and the same percentage of the Spotted Redshank (Tringa erythropus)!
55 bird species breed in the Ulcinj Salina. Almost half of the registered breeding pairs of aquatic birds in the whole region breed here. 70 of the registered bird species in this area are of special protection interest on the level of the European Union and are included in Annex I of the Birds Directive. Results of the IWC winter bird census, which has been performed since 1999 in the Ulcinj Salina, showed the presence of 20,000 birds every year, regardless of whether the basins are empty or full of water. Outside the production season, the dikes are subject to erosion as a result of waves; therefore the water is pumped out. In some dry winters, this makes the birds concentrate on a few basins and the scenes are exceptional to behold.
However, the most beautiful season in the Ulcinj Salina is spring: early migration brings large and dense flocks of ducks: the Garganey (Anas querquedula) comes in the largest numbers, up to 1,200 birds per hour. It is very tired from the flight over the Adriatic and lands on this rich breading place to renew its energy before continuing its journey north. Its relative the Teal (Anas crecca) is also exhausted from the long flight. It joins the flocks of Pintail (Anas acuta) and Wigeon (Anas penelope) which have spent the winter in the Ulcinj Salina and survived the bullets of local hunters. Thousands of Waders also come, very tired. Their flocks are smaller but that does not reduce interest in their protection: most of them have unfavourable protection status and their number is declining faster than other groups of birds, primarily due to loss of habitat. Tens of thousands of swallows use the Ulcinj Salina as a resting place on their trip back from Africa: the tamarisk trees are small for these lively birds and thus they land and rest on dikes. It sometimes happens that the whole dike becomes black from the Barn Swallow (Hirundo rustica) and House Martin (Delichon urbica). The Whinchat (Saxicola rubetra), Yellow Wagtail (Motacila flava), Flycatcher (Muscicapa striata) and Meadow Pipit (Anthus pratensis) come in flocks of 10,000 birds a day! In spring, the Ulcinj Salina is a transitory station for more than 40,000 migrating birds a day. Exceptional conditions in spring soon give way to the heat of the summer. The struggle to raise the nestlings and later on, their preparations for migrating to warmer wintering places continue. The situation is highly dynamic.
In autumn, the majority of our nesting birds are getting ready for the journey south, while tired birds from Siberia and Northern Europe will enjoy the Mediterranean winter, rainy but with few frosts, although they will also need to survive tempestuous cold winds from the surrounding mountains.
Medicinal mud, salt and tourism
The anaerobic conditions of the mud in the Ulcinj Salina basins have created large stocks of medicinal mud. Preliminary assessments have shown its high quality, primarily for the healing of arthritis and skin diseases. Together with sea salt, produced by wind and sun from the pure sea water and unpolluted air that blows in summer from the sea and in winter from unpopulated and clean mountains, it makes the Ulcinj Salina a heaven for the development of eco- and medicinal tourism. Tourists are welcomed at the Info Centre of the Salina Museum at the entrance of the Ulcinj Salina. There are viewpoints, towers and paths 3.9 and 17.6 km long, from which numerous bird flocks can be seen.
It is the best example of connecting economic production and nature protection in Montenegro and an excellent opportunity for nature watching in vivo.
The first act on the protection of the Ulcinj Salina was adopted in 1984, when all hunting was banned by the decision of the Workers Council. Several years later, the Ulcinj Salina became the first Important Bird Area (IBA) in Montenegro and afterwards became an Emerald site under the Bern Convention. The Ulcinj Salina will soon be listed on the Ramsar List of Wetlands of International Importance, primarily as a bird site. It is the first private nature park in Montenegro. Currently we are advocating for its national protection as Monument of Nature (Study on protection is in the process of public debate).