Cyprus, Macedonia & Albania: 20th April - 13th May 2016

Published by Jon Hornbuckle (jonhornbuckle AT yahoo.com)

Participants: Syndy Hornbuckle, Jon Hornbuckle

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Syndy and I spent 3 weeks sight-seeing and birding in Cyprus, Macedonia, Albania and Corfu (Greece). I had only been to mainland Greece and Lesbos before, so it was 3 new countries for me. We booked a fairly cheap week on Cyprus through Book Cyprus Co.UK, flying from Manchester to Pafos with Thomson, and hired a car for 5 days. We ignored the return flight to Manchester and booked flights from Pafos to Thessaloniki and from Corfu to Manchester with Ryan Air. All other travel and accommodation was either booked or paid for as we went along, Syndy’s smart phone being very useful. We had one very enjoyable day birding in Central Macedonia with Ksenija Putilin who kindly used her car for our transport.

Our trip was successful with some excellent photo opportunities and generally good weather. The only issues were at the start and end, firstly being obliged to check-in one case on the Thomson flight, at a cost of £49!, as they would not allow hand-luggage of more than 5kg ! Our last flight, Corfu to Manchester on Ryan Air was delayed by 24 hours because the plane due to take us could not land at Corfu because of poor visibility due to North African sand in the air!

ITINERARY

1. CYPRUS

April 20: Fly MAN – Pafos, Cyprus, taxi to Club St George, north Pafos (no buses available).

April 21: Explore Pafos, concentrating on the headland and the extensive archaeological site.

April 22: Pafos headland, Kings Tombs and Coral Bay.

April 23: AM at ringing demonstration near Neo Chorio, west of Polis on the Akamas peninsular. PM Baths of Aphrodites near Polis, then wetland near Skulli some 10km south of Polis.

April 24: JH birding at Mandria, Anarita Park, Pissouri, cliffs and Asprokemmos Reservoir. SH on day trip by bus to Nicosia to meet Filipina friends.

April 25: AM helping ringing at Smygies, Akamas peninsular. PM exploring countryside south of Polis.

April 26: Explore the Troodos mountains including Mt Olympus and Panagia Amasgous Monastery, then Aphrodite’s Temple and Birthplace on the south coast.

April 27: Explore Agios Georgios and Avakas Gorge on the west coast, then south of Polis.

I enjoyed the week on Cyprus, with good weather, friendly people and fairly cheap. The quality of the hotel and the breakfast and dinner there (half board) were excellent, but a hire-car was needed to go to and from the hotel as it was too far away from the local buses. I walked in the surrounding countryside most days for an hour or so, good exercise but birds were rather scarce, with Woodchat Shrike and Cyprus Wheatear the best. Pafos headland’s archaeological site was interesting but there were few migrant birds – probably too late in the season, although I did not visit there early in the morning as the hotel breakfast didn’t start till 08.00. The best birding was at the two ringing sites west of Polis, the countryside south of Polis, and Anarita Park near Pafos airport. The ringing activity, led very professionally by Alan Crabtree (an 18 year veteran of Cyprus who had left Dronfield, a few miles from where I live !), was very good as it included birds such as Lesser Grey and Red-backed Shrikes, Eastern Bonelli’s and Barred Warblers. Many thanks Alan. My favourite birds elsewhere were the feeding Bee-eater flocks (typically 20 to 40 strong), the 4 species of Shrike, the Harriers (too few unfortunately), and best of all the pair of active Rollers south of Polis, especially when one caught a large beetle on the ground and eventually swallowed it. We also saw our only Black Francolin near here, a bird frequently heard.

I heard a Scops Owl calling briefly near the first ringing site but didn’t try very hard to see it, only to discover when home that Cyprus birds have been split from all other European Scops!

Exploration of the Troodos mountains and a selection of old monasteries and other historical buildings and sites were part of the daily activities.

2. MACEDONIA

April 28: 07.00 Ryan Air flight from Pafos to Thessaloniki, bus from airport to city that we then explored on foot. PM: wait at the station for 17.30 bus to Skopje, Macedonia (23Euro each), arriving at 20.00 (1 hour behind Greek time). Taxi to Hostal 42 where we stayed comfortably for the next 3 nights (20 Euros per night).

April 29: Explore Skopje, mostly the old town.

April 30: Day trip by public bus to Treska Canyon, walking, butterflying and a bit of birding. Ksenija visited us in the evening at Hostal 42.

May 1: Day trip birding with Ksenija in central Macedonia, followed by a late lunch at a busy large restaurant on the shores of huge Mladost reservoir, close to Veles.

May 2: Bus to Ohrid, check in at Apartment Sonja (49 Euros for 3 nights b & b).

May 3: Bus/taxi to St Naum near the West end of Lake Ohrid.

May 4: Explore around Ohrid and the reedbeds at its western end. Return visit to St Naum and Albanian border by bus.

Macedonia was arguably the best part of the trip, although I would have liked to have seen more of it. Skopje was an interesting city to visit, especially the old town (Carsija) which was very lively. Large bronze statues of “famous” people were numerous – I liked them but Ksenija thinks they are a scandalous waste of money for a poor country – and there are quite a number of historical buildings scattered around. A walk along the Vardar river in Skopje, accompanied by the songs of Nightingales, was very pleasant.

Ksenija kindly gave us some ideas on where else to go, eg the area between the towns of Kochani, Shtip and Sv.Nikole. Bitola is an interesting old town, with a good National Park nearby. Look up Kratovo, the region of Mariovo and Ovce Pole - good for hiking and birding. Hiking is usually on mountains, not hills. You can download an app for Shar Mountain (https://play.google.com/store/apps/details?id=exploring.shar.mountain) which works offline and provides the best hiking routes in Macedonia. Shar has a huge number of endemic plants. Below Shar is Tetovo, a confusing messy town, but close enough to Skopje and on the way to Ohrid.

Ohrid is a cultural heritage site, full of interesting buildings in the old town, but rather popular with tourists. We stayed just below the massive medieval castle. We traveled along the huge Lake Ohrid by bus or taxi (same price) to Sveti (St.) Naum monastery 3 times. Ksenija recommended taking a ride over Galicica National Park to Lake Prespa, saying it was one of the most scenic roads in Europe. At one point on the road, you can park the car and hike up for some time to reach a spot where you can look at both lakes, stunning views with the possibility of seeing Chamois and “pretty cool” endemic plants. At Lake Prespa you can get a boat to Golem Grad Island, a Middle Earth-type place with a totally freaky ecosystem. One of the amazingly pretty villages (stunning architecture and setting, but almost abandoned) near lake Prespa offers cheap accommodation in an ethno house with everything typical Macedonian. Plenty to do next time….

The birding day was very good, thanks to Ksenija. The highlight was an excellent view of a Rock Partridge, a new bird for me, walking up a hillside near the village of Kochilari (Кочилари). An adult Golden Eagle flew low overhead, then we saw an Egyptian Vulture and 2 Imperial Eagles, accompanied by many Ravens, at a large rubbish dump. Other notable birds were several nesting White Storks, a single Montagu’s Harrier, a few Golden Orioles and a pair of Tawny Pipits.

Syndy took many photos of obliging Lesser Grey Shrikes near St Naum, and photo’d a Middle Spotted Woodpecker there. At least 3 Little Bitterns were in the reeds near Ohrid and more than 50 marsh terns fed over the lake near town for 2 days, the most numerous bird being White-winged Black Tern, one of my favourites (first seen at a breeding site in Poland near the Russian border nearly 40 years ago!).

3. ALBANIA

May 5: Check out of Apartment Sonja, taxi to Albanian border near St Naum. Walk across border, taxi to Pogradec, minibus to Korca, bus to Gjirokastra via Pogradec and Lushnja . Check in at Kotoni B & B (25 Euros a day, rooms 220 years old).

May 6: Explore Gjirokastra, taxi trip to an isolated ancient church. PM: walked up the hillside road above our apartment to try to find some birds but the hillside was too steep to continue up when the road ended. Stopped at Zekate House on the way down and observed a pair of Lesser Kestrels, probably nesting in the roof.

May 7: Bus to Saranda on the coast in the South, taxi to Ksamil, check in at Joni Hotel (25 Euro b & b), walk to Butrint, thumbed a lift back. Explore the beaches at Ksamil.

May 8: Walk to Butrint, explore the National Park, bus back to Ksamil, check nearby wetland.

I was told by several people that there were buses from Ohrid and Skopje to Albania. I wanted to go from Ohrid as we were heading to southern Albania, not enough time for the north. I discovered that no buses go from Western Macedonia to Albania – unsure about Skopje to the capital Tirana. The Lonely Planet book is right in saying the best way is to go to the border on the St Naum bus and walk across both borders. We took a minibus south to Korca where I was hoping to find a bus to Gjirokastra, “an intriguing hillside town”, only to be told there wasn’t one, the only way being to take the bus to Berat. This we did and found ourselves going back to Pogradec where we had just come from! However, the bus did not stop there but continued north along the shore of Lake Ohrid, eventually climbing high up the western hills before dropping down towards Tirana. We turned south and the driver told us to get off at Lushnja where we could catch a bus to Gjirokastra, which was not possible at Berat. After a bit of a wait we were offered seats in a minibus and continued south for at least another 3 hours, arriving about 6pm at Gjirokastra. The next morning we had a guided tour of the castle, one of the biggest in the Balkans, and several other buildings with unique architecture. Then we took a nice trip in a taxi to a 10th century small church which involved driving on a rough road, past a lake, to a village in the hills. I found a Lesser-spotted Woodpecker while walking round the village, on the way down a stop to check the lake gave 2 Squacco Herons on the shore. Back at Gjirokastra I watched a pair of Lesser Kestrels flying in and out of the old building of Zekate House.

The other place we stayed at was Ksamil, 17km south of Saranda, at Joni Hotel. This was a good move as Saranda was big and noisy whereas we could walk out into countryside very easily from quiet Ksamil. The walk to the cliffs above Butrint gave good views of Turtle Doves, Wheatears, Shrikes and colourful male Black-headed Buntings, while the wetland at their base held a few waterbirds including Spoonbills and a Purple Heron. A Marsh Harrier and Squacco Heron were seen on the edge of Ksamil, with Red-rumped Swallows, collecting mud for nest-building, and Swifts plentiful. Butrint itself is a photogenic, ancient ruined town with much history.

4. CORFU

May 9: Walk to the wetland at Ksamil, then to Butrint view-point, bus back to Ksamil, collect bags from the hotel, continue to Saranda. Take 13.00 ferry to Corfu (19 Euros each), arriving at 14.30. Taxi to Green Bus station, bus to Paleokastritsa, check in at Gregory Studios (60 Euros for 3 days).

May 10: Explore Paleokastritsa including the handsome small monastery beyond the resort.

May 11: AM: hill walk to Liapades, PM: hillside walk through olive orchards beyond our studio.

May 12: First rainy day. Bus to Corfu town, walk to San Rocco Square, walk to the airport. Await flight to Manchester till cancelled overnight at 01.00. 02.00 coach to good hotel courtesy of Ryan Air..

May 13: Nice, sunny day. Free breakfast then pleasant walk down to sea-shore near the airport and back to hotel. Coach to airport at 11.15. Wait for flight till boarding at 17.30, take-off at last at 18.45.

We were told by several people that the ferry left Saranda to Corfu twice a day at 08.00 and 17.30. We went early and then found that on this day, a Tuesday, the last ferry was 13.00 so we were lucky to catch it! Buses are infrequent on Corfu so we could not find one in town and even had difficulty locating a taxi to go to the bus station - would have been best to take one on arrival at the port.

The resort we chose was in a spectacular setting of wooded steep hills and high cliffs, and the studio/apartment was very pleasant. Birding was rather disappointing as the only good birds were Wryneck, Blue Rock-Thrush, Red-rumped Swallows close on wires outside the studio window, Woodchat Shrikes and an Olive Tree Warbler in an Olive grove. I was surprised we didn’t see or hear a Peregrine, with so much suitable nesting habitat. Alpine Swifts were numerous over the main square in Corfu town, but a walk at the lake near the airport on the final morning only gave Little Egrets and the trip’s only Yellow Wagtail.

The less said the better about the delayed flight home. Fortunately, the loss of a day was not really a problem to us.

Species Lists

1. Cyprus 2. Macedonia 3. Albania 4. Corfu
Numbers = no's seen, F = few seen, X = more than a few seen, H = heard, all = all 4 countries

Common Quail 2 Cyprus
Rock Partridge 1,2H Macedonia
Chukar X Cyprus, F Macedonia
Black Francolin 1,H Cyprus
Little Grebe F Macedonia, 2 Corfu
Great Crested Grebe F Macedonia
White Stork F Macedonia
European Cormorant F Albania
Pygmy Cormorant F Macedonia
Little Bittern 3 Macedonia
Grey Heron F all
Purple Heron 1 Albania
Great Egret 2 Cyprus
Little Egret F all
Cattle Egret F Cyprus
Squacco Heron 3 Albania
Black-crowned Night-Heron 1 Cyprus
Eurasian Spoonbill 4 Albania
Egyptian Vulture 1 Macedonia
Eastern Imperial Eagle 2 Macedonia
Golden Eagle 1 Macedonia
Bonelli's Eagle 1 Cyprus
Marsh-Harrier 1 Cyprus & Albania
Pallid Harrier 3 Cyprus
Montagu's Harrier 1 Macedonia
Eurasian Sparrowhawk 2 Cyprus, 1 Corfu
Common Buzzard F all
Long-legged Buzzard 2 Cyprus
Water Rail H Macedonia
Eurasian Moorhen F all
Eurasian Coot F Macedonia & Corfu
Common Sandpiper F Macedonia
Greenshank 2 Cyprus
Common Redshank 1 Cyprus
Black-headed Gull F Macedonia
Yellow-legged Gull X all
Black Tern X Macedonia
White-winged Tern X Macedonia
Whiskered Tern F Macedonia
Common Tern F Macedonia
Wood-Pigeon X all
Turtle-Dove up to 6 all
Collared-Dove F all
Great Spotted Cuckoo 1 Cyprus
Common Cuckoo 1+ Cyprus & Macedonia
Cyprus Scops-Owl H Cyprus
Little Owl 1 Cyprus
Alpine Swift X Corfu
Common Swift F Albania, X Corfu
Pallid Swift F Cyprus
Eurasian Hoopoe 1 Cyprus
Common Kingfisher 1 Macedonia
Blue-cheeked B-eater 1 Cyprus
European Bee-eater X all
European Roller 5+ Cyprus, 1+ Macedonia & Albania
Eurasian Wryneck 2 Corfu
Lesser Spotted Woodpecker 1 Albania
Middle Spotted Woodpecker 1+ Macedonia
Gt Spotted WoodpeckerF F all
Lesser Kestrel F Albania
Eurasian Kestrel F all
Eurasian Hobby 1 Cyprus
Peregrine 1H Macedonia
Red-backed Shrike F Cyprus & Macedonia, 1 Albania
Lesser Grey Shrike 2 Cyprus, 5+ Macedonia
Masked Shrike F Cyprus, 1+ Macedonia, 2 Albania
Woodchat Shrike F all
Eurasian Golden Oriole F Macedonia, H Albania & Corfu
Eurasian Jay F all
Eurasian Magpie X all
Eurasian Jackdaw X all
Hooded Crow X all
Common Raven X Macedonia, H Corfu
Greater Short-toed Lark F
Crested Lark X Cyprus, F all others
Eurasian Crag-Martin F Cyprus & Macedonia
Barn Swallow X all
Red-rumped Swallow F all
Common House-Martin F Cyprus & Macedonia, X Albania & Corfu
Coal Tit F Cyprus & Corfu
Eurasian Blue Tit F Cyprus, X Corfu
Great Tit X all
Long-tailed Tit 2+ Cyprus, F Corfu
Eurasian Wren 2 Cyprus, F all others
Cetti's Warbler X all
Common Chiffchaff F Cyprus
Eastern Bonelli's 2+ Cyprus
Eastern Olivaceous F all
Olive-tree Warbler 1 Corfu
Eurasian Reed-Warbler F Cyprus & Macedonia
Great Reed-Warbler F Cyprus, Macedonia & Albania
Fan-tailed Warbler F Cyprus, Macedonia & Albania
Cyprus Warbler 1+ Cyprus
Eurasian Blackcap X Cyprus, F Corfu
Lesser Whitethroat F Cyprus
Eastern Orphean Warbler 1+ Cyprus & Corfu
Barred Warbler 2 Cyprus
Rueppell's Warbler 1+ Cyprus
Sardinian Warbler X all
Common Whitethroat F Cyprus, Macedonia
Nightingale H Cyprus, F all other countries
Blue Rock-Thrush 1 Corfu
European Stonechat 2 Albania
Cyprus Pied Wheatear F Cyprus
Black-eared Wheatear F Cyprus, Macedonia & Albania
Eurasian Blackbird F all
Song Thrush F all
European Starling X all
Eastern? Yellow Wagtail 1 Corfu airport
Grey Wagtail F Macedonia
White Wagtail F all
Tawny Pipit 2 Macedonia
Common Chaffinch X all
European Greenfinch X all
European Goldfinch X all
Eurasian Linnet X all
European Serin X all
House Sparrow X all
Spanish Sparrow X Cyprus
Black-headed Bunting 2 Cyprus, X Macedonia & Albania
Corn Bunting F all
Cirl Bunting F Albania