Scenario: Two birders, one Irish, one Irish-Australian who, due to circumstances beyond their control, had to cancel a trip earlier in the year but really wanted to get away birding, so chose to ‘do’ mainland Greece in Autumn, knowing it wasn’t the best time of year.
Dermot Hughes (Mr H) from Belfast and, myself, Colin Reid from Brisbane, Queensland, spent three weeks birding the mainland (only) from Athens, to the extreme east near the Turkish border (Dadia and the Evros Delta), west to Lake Kerkini and the Bulgarian border, up to Prespa on the Albanian border, south to the extremes of the Pindos Mountains, down to the tip of the Peloponnese and, finally, back to Athens.
Logistics: We flew Aegean Airlines from Dublin to Athens. A few-frills (but we did get a meal on both the 4 hour flights), one flight a day, leave at 1.00am arrive at 5.30am red eye. Athens to Dublin, left at 8pm, arrive 10.30pm. Baggage limits were fairly generous - 23kgs check in, 8kgs carry on, plus a ‘personal’ bag – i.e. lap top bag. When I’m taking a scope, bins and camera I like to have them with me along with the re-chargeable batteries. I put my iPad, E-reader, iPod and charging cables in with my lap top – I have never had it weighed.
Mr H booked Air BnBs for all but one night and we booked that missing night, also via Air BnB, while on the road. We chose the cheaper end of the spectrum – about $Au30 each per night – and were very satisfied, with one exception which didn’t provide what we had expected, but wasn’t bad by any means. Good Wi-Fi was available in all locations, except one and we got it easily for the price of a coffee in a local tavern.
I booked the car on-line through rentalcars.com – a company I have used before and would use again. The provider was Enterprise and easy to find in the arrivals terminal. I had erred on the side of ‘smallish’ – a Ford Escort – and at first thought we could have done with a larger car due to the extent of time we planned to spend in it, but that would have created issues in some of the very narrow village streets we passed through, so it turned out to be the right choice in the end. Cost – just under $Au800 for the three weeks.
I thought that my Australian driver’s license would be transferable - with Greece being a member of the EEC. (Ireland accepts the Aust license no problem) BUT although the car rental company gave me the car without any questions, it is highly recommended that Australians, at least, have an International Driver’s License in case the police stop you. I had neglected to get one so Mr H did all the driving (his UK license was quite acceptable). We didn’t, as it turned out, get stopped, but better safe than sorry, I guess. We ‘negotiated’ a price of E50 for the ‘additional driver’ although the asking price was E100.
Important note re driving on mainland Greece. To get anywhere fast use the motorways. They are excellent, great surface, well-marked, 130km/hr BUT the tolls! We used them to go east firstly to Alexandropulis, then from the Peloponnese back to Athens – most of the rest of our driving was non-motorway by choice. We spent E87.25 (= $Au132) on tolls (that includes E13.30 (=$Au20) to cross the bridge to the Peloponnese peninsula from the north). Every 30 kms or so we paid cash at a toll booth on those sections. Just something to be aware of. Most of the secondary roads are fine – but can be windy and traffic heavy in the south and easterly directions. In the north and far east the traffic was almost non-existent at times.
We found Greek drivers to be much the same as everywhere else. Half of them signal their intentions, half of them don’t, a lot of them ignore any suggestions of speed limits and some of them crawl along. We didn’t have any incidents of road rage, although they do have a disconcerting habit on the motorways of changing back into your lane very close in front. Takes a bit of getting used to – almost a macho thing maybe? - but no real danger as they were going so much faster than we were.
There was also an unwritten rule that if you’re on an open one-lane-each-way road and someone wants to pass, that you drive as far as you can to the right so they can get past. This too, takes some getting used to, but it does mean everyone keeps a very close focus on where they are in the road and allows for speedier drivers to move ahead. We did see what we considered to be some hairy overtaking on blind corners, but no crashes so……maybe we were too conservative?
Parking in some towns was haphazard and erratic, but if everyone is doing it it must be OK! Some of the smaller village streets are so freaking narrow…..! If you’re used to that in the UK or Ireland it’s not quite as bad, but coming from Australia, where there’s generally plenty of room, my heart was in my mouth at times.
Signposting was generally good; strangely enough there was usually a sign in the Greek alphabet - which neither of us understood at all – then 50 meters further on another in roman spelling. I say strangely ‘cause I couldn’t understand why they didn’t put both on the same sign? Maybe because everyone is driving so fast and wouldn’t have time to read it….However, we found that often when we entered a town the signage disappeared and it was a bit challenging finding the right road out – that’s where MapsMe came in. We did go round in circles a few times though…….what we called ‘Cloiseaux moments’ in small villages where we drove past the coffee-drinking, ouzo-sipping, bead-worrying, older men in the cafes who watched us drive back and forward looking for the right road.
Equipment & Books: We each had a scope and tripod and 10x42 bins and I had my Panasonic Lumix DMC FZ70. I also carried a blue tooth speaker, a Tascam handheld recorder and a Go Pro….everything the modern ‘all the gear and no idea’ birder needs…. Mr H had purchased three ‘where to find birds in Greece-type books’:
Birding in Greece x Chris Vlachos, Roula Trigou & Lefteris Stavrakas .Travel guide to birdwatching sites in Greece. Difficult to use, a bit OTT in describing the sites and potential species, but does encourage one to visit and provides good details regarding access etc.
Birdwatching in Northern Greece x Steve Mills (2nd ed) Again just a little difficult to use – i.e. to find what page the locations are on, but very detailed and informative.
Finding birds in Northern Greece x Dave Gosney. A thin 44 page booklet packed with detailed info, including hand drawn mud maps, from Prespa Lakes in the northwest across to the Dadia/Evros Delta complex on the Turkish border. Very useful, extremely detailed and accurate as regards directions, potential species and conditions. Does not include anywhere south of that line obviously. A definite must have if visiting this area at any time of year.
I had been responsible for bringing the field guide and had chosen to use the Collins Bird Guide app on my phone and iPad. This worked very well, especially having all the bird calls to hand and the ‘comparison’ function was extremely useful. However, at times it’s nice to just have a book to go through – I have to agree with Mr H who patiently put up with my decision…..However, I can’t recommend this app more highly – for convenience and accuracy and detail it’s as extraordinarily brilliant as the book.
I had also ventured into the on-line Sat Nav type of mapping to get us around. Mr H, meanwhile, had bought detailed maps of the whole country so we did use those when we were ‘out of town’. The app MapsMe is a free Sat Nav for Apple products that is as good as Google maps, but doesn’t need internet connection! (I believe there is a similar app for androids.) It works off satellites I guess, and is extremely accurate and quick – all you have to do is download the maps you want before you start – you do need the internet for that – well worth the installation, especially when it comes to finding your way in and out of towns and to your accommodation.
Preparation: We found that info for birding on mainland Greece was very limited. The books listed above provided much of our useable detail. I researched E-bird and found minimal data – some of it years old. Trip reports were nearly all focused on the islands, migrants and Spring. We both fancy ourselves as (very) amateur naturalists – i.e. interested in butterflies, mammals and reptiles, although our main focus is birds. Any data on these other subjects was just as non-existent. Even getting lists of species for Greece was impossible – all other European countries seemed to have available data, but not Greece.
We did identify the main birding spots and simply targeted those – choosing the Sperchios Delta near Larissa first off because it was a reasonable distance east from Athens for our first day and we figured an estuary was a positive destination. Then it was a big drive from there to the Dadia/Evros Delta area in the east for the vultures and more wetland species. Lake Kerkini came up as being well worth a visit and the northern lakes around Prespa seemed like a viable option. Then it was the Pindos Mountains area (Ioannina) for height and ruggedness and finally the Peloponnese for, hopefully, over wintering summer visitors and rocky shore stuff. That’s how we decided where to go.
Our Prior experience: A note needs to be made here regarding our prior European birding experiences. Mine was restricted to birding Ireland and France in the 1970s with a few short birding trips while visiting family in Ireland and one in the UK since then. I did not have an extensive European list and what I did have was so long ago I could hardly remember it. A lot of the lifers I got on this trip are relatively common European birds and even easy in the UK.
Mr H had birded Spain and France fairly extensively back in the day, but since then his focus, too, had been in Ireland.
We had a lot of catching up to do, with hopes high for some goodies.
21.9.17 Dublin – Athens – Keramidi
What a flight! A very typical cheap, fully packed plane with lots of big people and all the usual poor behaviour of cheap travellers. They served a meal which was OK and came round with coffee twice, which helped the 4 hour flight time pass quickly, but both Mr H and I had BIG dudes in front of us who leaned their seats back and then banged repeatedly into them as they tried to sleep, creating a continuous threat of them landing in our laps.
Anyway – we got out, through customs, got our bags and dragged our sorry asses out to the car rental. It was a 250 meter walk to locate our car in the lot and we crammed our baggage in while I tried to get my iPad Nav Man working for us to escape Athens. I managed to get MapsMe working well and we headed off – Mr H driving, me navigating.
It was, of course, dark as we left the airport and we tried to understand the road signs, traffic (mad drivers, no indication, no lane markings, everyone going hell for leather) and follow the directions on my iPad. We got lost three times, despite the programme and paid at least two extra tolls as a result. Eventually dawn broke as we were still in the outer suburbs, but we ploughed on regardless, Mr H trying all the gears in the box at once, giggling like schoolboys and expressing horror at the expectations of the other road users.
Tolls? Jesus Christ on a moped, every 30 kms there was a toll booth with the cost varying between 1.75 euro and 3.80 euro. We haven’t totalled the cost yet, but it was never ending.
After about 4 and a half hours we found our way to our first planned stop – the Sperchios Delta – a large bay backed by extensive wetlands accessed via dirt tracks along which our brave little car crawled. A strong ‘offshore’ (I think it was a north westerly) wind was blowing and the reeds were swaying and small birds took flight at their own risk, BUT what a day! Greater Flamingos, Wood Sandpipers, Western Marsh Harriers, Western Yellow Wagtails, a Common Kingfisher and two new birds for me – 3 White Storks – poor flight view, but good enough - and, very surprisingly, Penduline Tits. The wind was really fierce and put paid to most photography, but I did note heaps of dragonflys around the standing water.
After an hour or so we trundled back into the local village and visited a Mini Mart to get some groceries. The owner spoke very little English and we spoke next to no Greek, but we did manage to get some staples. A quick bite of bread and cheese then it was back on the road and more tolls before finally getting off the motorway and down to Lake Karla.
Set in a valley that was originally a huge wetland, a new dam wall/embankment has created a shallow lake – and provides a perfect platform to drive along and scope the reed beds and feeding birds. The road runs around the edge of this valley, so is flanked on one side with a steep, very steep in places, rocky, thorn-scrub slope.
We stopped to bird this slope a couple of times before reaching the lake. On our first stop we had Red-backed Shrikes, a bit distant, but good none the less, heaps of butterflies - photos taken, to be identified in the fullness of time - and my third tick of the day – a European Nightjar flushed by himself, that we subsequently saw well three times in flight. Our second stop produced Black Storks in flight and Rock Nuthatch!! Brilliant!! The latter two birds I thought we’d have real difficulty seeing.
Reaching the dam embankment we picked up the Black Storks, now perched up, so to speak…. and then the ticks started to roll again… European Spoonbills, (imm) Dalmatian Pelicans, Pygmy Cormorants, Black-eared Wheatears and Lesser Kestrels, along with other goodies like Black-winged Stilts, Temmick’s Stints, Spotted Redshanks, Western Marsh Harriers and Yellow Wagtails, Gadwall, Whiskered Terns and Common Snipe. I guess some of these would be considered fairly average European birds, but for me it was a tick fest, a 10 lifer day.
And it was one of those days when the ticks just kept coming – you know what I mean? You no sooner have one seen and spent some time with, than your partner is calling something else…..I struggled to keep up! Mr H added 6 lifers to his list for himself and was well pleased with the day.
To top it off, walking back from a final scoping of the shore line Mr H heard, yes heard, a Tortoise walking through the thorny grass and we had a close encounter with this, surprisingly big, reptile. Something I had not expected or prepared for – unreal! (Marginated Tortoise Testudo marginate).
By now the long day was starting to really hit so we gave it away and drove up and out of the valley, on switchback roads, through flocks of cattle, goats and even domestic pigs – another first for us - over the top of the surrounding mini mountains and down the far side to meet our first AirBnB host at Keramidi village. It turned out to be a very tiny village perched on the slopes above the sea and our accommodation was a tiny, one bedroomed, house set among others up a very, very narrow street - I mean very, very narrow. If we hadn’t been driving such a small car we wouldn’t have got it up to the house. God knows how we’ll get it down again – but that’s a problem for tomorrow…..
The butterflies later identified as: Bath White Pontia daplidice, Common Blue Polyommatus Icarus, Persian Skipper Spialia phlomidis, Southern White Admiral Limenitis reducta, Small Copper Lycaena phlaeas, Spotted Fritillary Melitaea didyma and I picked up a Mediterranean Slant-faced Grasshopper Acrida ungarica.
22.9.17 Keramidi & Lake Karla again
Up at 6.30 and out by 7 we decided against moving the car immediately and went, instead, for a walk back up the only road into town. It was a very slow meander, picking up nice birds like singing Cirl Buntings, Spotted Flycatchers, Eurasian Jays, Tree Pipits, Red-backed Shrike and plenty of Sombre Tits.
Returning to the house we manoeuvred the car out of the driveway carefully and finally set off up the road again looking for more mature trees and tracks off the road. The first one was an almost immediate success – a Short-toed Eagle hung almost motionless above the ridge providing excellent views before swinging off out of sight. Eurasian Nuthatches were everywhere – and continued to be so all morning – more Sombre Tits, an (unidentified) red-throated lizard and a couple of new butterflies. (Grizzled Skipper Pyrgus malvae and Large Wall Brown Lasiommata maera).
The second effort was even more brilliant! A Middle-spotted Woodpecker on the ground provided opportunity for video and close examination – although it was a little distant. We heard Green Woodpeckers but only managed fleeting views – as you do, bastard things – then, as we moved along a narrow track through the trees, a call sounded that I hadn’t heard before and a large black bird swooped away. Mr H turned to me, eyes shining, and said ‘Black Woodpecker!’ Words I had been hoping to hear. The next two hours were spent following the calls, using playback and sitting and watching, but gaining only a couple more fleeting flight views. During this prolonged stalk we saw a Wood Warbler and Short-toed Treecreeper.
It being now lunch time we headed own to the coast (5kms) and found our way along a shingle beach to a café bar where we had our first Greek coffee – it was excellent. Then back along to the road and a beach side taverna. We negotiated lunch with the owner i.e. he showed us what he could prepare and we agreed the price. We were the only lunch customers and enjoyed a very pleasant two hours or so on tzatziki dip & bread, whole deep fried Red Mullet, a feta, tomato, olive, sweet pepper and cucumber salad and a big plate of calamari. A Greek beer each, followed by a plate of chestnuts and coffee and the bill of 39 euro. Probably more expensive than we had expected but a great experience and worth it. During lunch my first European Honey Buzzard flew over the hill for a short view.
We decided to head over the hills back to Lake Karla again – and took a slow drive, stopping often, during which we scoped another Middle-spotted Woodpecker and had a flock of Long-tailed Tits.
Back at lake Karla we found huge flocks of House Sparrow and looked in vain for Spanish. Tree Sparrows, European Greenfinch and Corn Buntings aplenty were added to our trip list. We also saw a single Black Stork, a flock of European Spoonbills and a couple of Common Sandpipers. By 18.30 we had had enough and headed back home.
23.9.17 Keramidi – Tichero
This was a day for driving. Mr H had estimated the distance in miles and then listed it as kilometres – so we ended up with 7 and a half hours driving and 600 kms…..
The drive was relatively uneventful - a few things here and there but nothing that brought us to a screaming halt. The motorways are really, really good. Up to 130 k/hr, few cars, slower trucks, great surface. The only drawback is paying for them via the tolls – not quite as bad today – or am I just getting used to it?
On our way through we stopped at the Evros Delta visitor centre to pick up the passes Mr H had applied for a month ago. You need the passes to go deeper into the delta as it’s militarily controlled. You apply for them ahead of time, then pick them up.
It was 15.55 when we got there (today is Saturday too) and the centre was closed – supposedly at 16.00, but they’d obviously pissed off a little early. I tried banging on the door but no one came. Translating the opening hours on the front door via guide book we found the centre is closed on Sundays so we will have to wait till Monday to get full access to the wetlands. Not a major worry as we’re here till Wednesday anyway.
Anyway, we arrived in the very small village of Tichero, about as close to the Turkish border as you can get, at about 16.00, found our accommodation – an average, ground floor, twin bed, one room, self contained apartment in the Hotel Lago. We quickly realised there were no pots and pans and minimal plates and cutlery in the unit. Bringing this to the on-site manager’s attention he led us to a common kitchen/sitting room area where we could cook in a fully equipped kitchen. Not what we’d expected, but perfectly acceptable.
We decided that a rest and coffee break was necessary and while sitting outside our room doing just that we scoped 6 Short-toed Eagles cruising high above us. Mr H pointed out a speeding Alpine Swift and we had our first Common Swift of the trip too.
We went for a check out drive to Dadia Forest visitor centre – 10ks up the road – and found it very quiet. A number of Chaffinches were the only birds present in our short walk, then we headed for the ‘small bird hide’ - a 5 minute walk from the centre. Just outside that we got my second tick for the day and Mr H’s lifer – a Syrian Woodpecker.
We headed back to the hotel, cooked dinner and crashed.
24.9.17 Dadia Forest and Evros Delta
Today was (hopefully) going to be Vulture Day. My first experience with the beasts.
We left ‘home’ at 7.30 and made it to the visitor centre just on 8. A woman from Denmark and a guy from Germany were there together, also as visitors, though neither was a serious birder. The staff opened up promptly and we all watched a 30 minute video of the park and its inhabitants which was, actually, worth seeing. We then paid our 4 euro each and boarded the mini bus for the 10 minute drive to the hide.
The park management provide food at a feeding station for the vultures and this is what we were going to see. The birds are, to all intents and purposes, wild – although a number did carry wing tags.
The hide overlooked the feeding station, but it was a long way away, we estimate about 500 meters. Two scopes were provided for the punters, but, obviously, Mr H and I had our own. Apart from the distance it was brilliant! 10 Black Vultures, 2 Griffon Vultures and 2 White-tailed Eagles (imm) were on site feeding on the carcases of a couple of cattle.
We stayed after the bus left, choosing to walk back via the forest track, and after the other two visitors had left as well. Then we, too, left the distant vultures to their meal and headed back to the information centre. It took us 60 minutes, some rough terrain, but mostly gently downhill. We had expected to see lots but there was feck-all in the forest. We did see a small flock of Long-tailed Tits, but that was about it.
A very welcome cup of Greek coffee – getting to like this stuff – then we headed off for the drive to the ‘Mast Lookout’. This involved driving back down the main road, turning off a side road and following it up a mountain for 18kms to a peak where there was a ‘military’ compound and, reputedly, the potential for close-up views of flying raptors, vultures included.
A few things happened on the way….
First up, a Short-toed Eagle crossed low across the road in front of us and when we pulled up to have a look, another eagle/buzzard type bird glided into view – a Lesser Spotted Eagle.
We turned off the main road and started up the narrowing side road. Mr H suggested stopping at a likely spot. There wasn’t much in the way of birds, but a Wild Cat Felis silvestris stepped out onto the track in front of us! I grabbed some quick shots which weren’t very clear before it slunk off low to the ground – very unexpected!
Further on a second Lesser Spotted Eagle circled high overhead. The road to the Lookout was very narrow, with many blind corners, overgrown verges and rough patches. It was a slow drive as we never knew what to expect round the next corner. However, we made it safely and found a deserted, windowless, semi-ruined watch tower outside the main compound that afforded excellent views of about two thirds of the surrounding area. We climbed the rusting spiral staircase and hung out up there for a while, but nothing showed. We decided to drive about 500 meters back down the road to another lookout, but again, nothing.
Eventually we found a small side track through the trees on the north side of the road and pushed through to see a couple of Black Vultures circling a hillside. We climbed a rocky outcrop in front of us and finding some shade sat for an hour or so watching several Black and 1 or 2 Griffon Vultures circling high overhead. None of them came anywhere near us, but it was a nice way to have lunch.
We headed back down the hill and due to the severe lack of passerines around the roads decided to go to part of the Evros Delta we could access without the permits.
On the way Mr H suggested we try the visitor centre ‘just in case they’re open’. I was sceptical, but it was on the way so we dropped in anyway…..and, of course, they were bleedin’ open! The guy on site had the pass ready and was friendly and eager, but not very optimistic about us seeing much. Anyway, we headed down the track beside the strip club as described and soon had birds to look at. (The strip club is a couple of ks back down the main road towards Alexandropulis and is pretty obvious; the track down from there leads to the western end of the delta and provides beach access.)
Within 10 minutes Mr H had a European Roller on a rather distant heat-haze affected wire. As we were looking at this and preparing to walk closer, a flock of hirundines came through – mostly Pallid Swifts, also Common Swift, Barn Swallow, Sand Martin and one Red-rumped Swallow.
Then we went after the Roller – we didn’t get very close before it moved a similar distance away again so we gave up. It was 28 degrees, we were both knackered – especially me – and it was very dry.
We carried on down to the shore line of extensive low sand dunes and mud flats, but saw little of real interest apart from a handful of Crested Larks, it was 17.30 so we headed home.
25.9.17 Evros Delta
We turned off the road at Feres, a small village on the main road with a lot of traffic lights, and headed down unsealed roads to the Delta. It took us a while to figure out where we were, but eventually, we were on the right road.
A fairly long, relatively boring hour and a half’s driving along the raised embankment surrounded by very dry fields and empty bushes coming within spitting distance of the border with Turkey but seeing no evidence of the expected Greek military. In fact, we never took the sought after pass out of the glovebox. The only military installations we saw appeared to be long abandoned and semi-derelict. Not really sure why the dude at the visitor’s centre didn’t mention this fact, but anyway… We did have 10 seconds of excitement when a European Jackal Canis aureus moreoticus walked across the road in front of us.
We eventually reached some shallow water and started seeing some interesting stuff. I pulled a Purple Heron out of a reedbed and got good, if not a little brief, view before it took flight. We saw heaps of Western Marsh Harriers, a single White-tailed Eagle, a couple of very brief flight views of Cetti’s Warblers and a few Greater Flamingos also in flight before we reached the end of the road. We also had a number of Eurasian Hobbys which, a bit to my surprise, were a tick for me. I was sure I had seen them before, but it would appear not. There was a strong easterly wind blowing again, which made it very difficult to keep the scopes steady and any birds that took flight got blown away very quickly. We visited two well-constructed hides – both were locked – a frustration after climbing 4 flights of stairs. Maybe it’s to stop illegal immigrants sleeping over?
At the end of the road, however, there was a large concentration of waders, Pelicans, Gulls and Duck. Sorting through this from shelter behind a dilapidated building we identified Dalmatian Pelicans, Eurasian Teal, Caspian Terns, Dunlin, Yellow-legged Gulls, Common Shelduck, Spotted and Common Redshanks, Common Greenshanks, 1 Common Sandpiper, 1 Northern Pintail and several Common Ringed Plover. In a nearby scrape – Kentish Plover at last!
A little further on a huge flock of about 400 Greater Flamingos in another shallow pond was a beautiful sight.
We were pretty tired by midday, what with the wind, the slow driving (due to the rough road and not wanting to miss anything) and the 28 degree heat, so we pulled stumps and headed home for lunch and a nana nap.
Out again at 15.30 and we again headed into the Delta, down the ‘middle road’ so to speak. Just after turning off the main drag a large circling raptor on the left brought us to a halt, (dump the seat belts, jump out of the car) and turned into a Long-legged Buzzard – a lifer for both of us.
This road turned up nothing of interest, so we headed back to the main road and down the road beside the strip club that we had gone down yesterday.
This ended up on the beach and we drove around looking for waders and gulls – the sand was very hard packed and quite safe to drive on in our very-non-4WD machine.
More Kentish Plovers, Dunlin, a Western Osprey and, as Mr H found out when he checked an apparent Black-headed Gull- Slender-billed Gull. An adult and a very attractive gull it was too!
17.30 and we felt we’d done all we could, so we headed home again. On the way we had two more Long-legged Buzzards above a field beside the main road.
At home we booked another AirBnB for further on in our trip then walked into ‘town’ for meat skewers, spicy cabbage, feta and bread and a beer or two before crashing.
26.9.17 Dadia Mountains & Avas Railway station
Wow!! Another truly memorable birding day – at least so far as we are concerned.
It was spitting rain – which suited us quite well, as we intended driving the road from Dadia village up across the mountains and down to Lutros again, on the coast road.
We set off at 7.30 and headed to Dadia. Driving through the village the local men were taking their morning coffee sitting outside the local coffee shops. As we rumbled through they all looked at us, obviously in a small village with narrow streets anything is an object of attention. Unfortunately Mr H got a little confused and we ended up on the wrong road, so we had to drive back through the village, past all the same men, who again, all watched us rumble by…….then we did a U turn and drove back through the main square past all the coffee shops again. It reminded me of one of those Inspector Cloiseaux /Pink Panther movie scenes.
Anyway, back to birding…
We just picked random places to stop along the way when either Mr H heard something or we saw some activity or we picked a place previously described in the book. Some of these spots were excellent. Good views of Great Spotted Woodpecker at one, a flock of 30 Hawfinches at another. One of the best had Common Blackbirds and Song thrushes, Common Chaffinches and Spotted Flycatchers in abundance, then about 10 Common Redstarts, along with my first lifer of the day - Lesser Whitethroat.
Another stop at a pig farm saw us walking down a dirt track in the now drizzling rain to follow up on a Flycatcher we saw from the car – Collared Flycatcher, a brief, damp view, followed by a single Red-breasted Flycatcher and then, unexpectedly in the thin trees, a Lesser Spotted Woodpecker! Very good views at about 20 meters for long enough for my arms to get tired holding the bins up - excellent. Of course I didn’t have the camera with me due to the rain….
We ended our mountain drive at Lutros and decided to have a cup of coffee (Greek style) in the Hotel Isidora. While we sat the thunder rumbled and the rain poured down for about 10 minutes.
We now felt we had covered most of the immediate area and still had the now brightening afternoon in front of us. I suggested we try the Avas Gorge – it was about 20kms away towards Alexandropulis and appeared to have some potential according to the book.
The book in fact described a railway station just before the gorge that had had some good birds so we stopped off there on the way in. The station itself was a deserted ruin and a long line of old carriages had been left to rot on a side track – there was no one else around.
We walked very slowly through an old olive grove following a feeding party of Chaffinchs, Spotted Flys, multiple Common Blackcaps and Tits and a single Sylvia warbler we were having difficulty seeing well enough to identify. As we stood waiting patiently for it to re-appear a Eurasian Hoopoe flew down about 50 meters away and started to feed! Wow - a bird I have waited yonks to see, it was unreal. It was also half-shielded by thin brown grass and the photos I did try didn’t work out, but it didn’t matter. It was unreal to see such a brightly coloured bird appear out of nowhere, crest raised, like a giant butterfly.
The warbler turned out to be an Eastern Olivaceous Warbler and we had a Garden Warbler there as well. It was hard work though and took us upwards of 90 minutes hard stalking.
We found our second Tortoise species here too – Hermann’s Tortoise Testudo hermanni.
I was interested to see if there was anything else in the thicket and decided to try playing owl calls to see if that would draw out anything. I hung my Bluetooth speaker in a tree and played Scops Owl – small reaction from the Tits, but nothing major. I switched to Little Owl – nothing at all. I thought, what the hell, I’ll try Eagle Owl – again little or no reaction. I stopped playing. Then I thought I had an echo in my ear cause I could still hear the deep “UUUUHHH’ call. I banged my head and ensured my ears were clear, waited, and…………heard it again. I called Mr H and said ‘I think we’ve got a response!” or something similar……. Sure enough a Eurasian Eagle Owl was calling back – admittedly some distance away, but it was calling. We identified a cliff face on the other side of the tracks as being the probable location, but despite scanning intensely couldn’t pick it out. As we watched a pair of Ravens arrived and alighted on the cliff edge, almost immediately the owl gave itself away and flew a meter or so to another spot on the cliff face, just out of our line of vision. Wow!! Eagle Owl in daylight! We hurried across the rusting tracks, found a gap in the hedge, walked through an olive grove and came out below the cliff face. We were about 70 meters from its base and it wasn’t all that high – maybe 20 meters. The Ravens had departed and we scanned and scanned the cliff face repeatedly until finally I spotted a big orange eye peering over some grass in a corner. I called Mr H, but as I did it took flight again, flew along the cliff face and disappeared out of sight. Far OUT!! It was a very exciting experience.
We returned to the car, absolutely delighted with our find. There had been no mention of the owl in this location – although the book did say that Avas Gorge, our next destination, had had them in the past. We went there and sat and had our lunch by the roadside but saw nothing except a Clouded Yellow Colias crocea – but it really didn’t matter.
Heading back towards home we stopped off at a ridge line near the Delta visitor centre, driving up a very rough road to gain some height above the surrounding land. The dude in the centre had mentioned this as a fly way for raptors to and from the Delta, we sat for a while and had 1 Long-legged Buzzard, about 20 Alpine Swifts, 40 Common House Martins, Sand Martins and a Eurasian Sparrowhawk which dive bombed a flock of Starlings, but came away empty handed.
We headed home at 17.00 well pleased with our day.
27.9.17 Tichero – Lake Kerkini via Porto Lagos
We left Tichero - and left behind my neck scarf and Mr H’s head torch - at 7.30 and headed west. A damp, cool morning upgraded to a bright, sunny day on the way to Porto Lagos.
Another wetland, another day.
We checked several sights in and around the town seeing a lot of what we had already listed with a few highlights – 5 Sanderling, 3 Bar-tailed Godwit, more Greater Flamingos, 2 Ruff, 3 Kentish Plovers, 15 Red Knot and, best of all, a single European Bee Eater.
We moved on, avoiding Tortoises crossing the road on several occasions and narrowly missing a snake on another – but not the potholes, Mr H didn’t miss them!
Some spectacular scenery as the lowlands rose to the Rodolpi Mtns – although only the western end. Driving into this scene with Eminem singing about White America in the background was……..different!
We reached Lake Kerkini around 16.30 with Mt Belles in the background and started round the lake scanning for stuff.
A massive flock of, by our estimate, at least 2000 Common Pochard loafed out in the centre of the lake. Scanning slowly through them we started to pick out individual Ferruginous Ducks, not many, we guessed about 20 seen, but there were probably a lot more, the flock was, even in my x50 zoom, pretty distant.
We checked all the Pelicans we found on our side of the lake, about 30, but they were all Dalmatian Pelicans. In the very far distance, on the other side we could see massive flocks of Greater Flamingos and what appear to be White Pelicans through the heat haze, but we decided to leave them till tomorrow.
Heading further up the lake towards the village of Kerkini itself, I called a halt for a ‘wader’ in a shallow inlet. The wader was, in fact a Squacco Heron and we eventually saw 4. Yes, my sight does need work…..
We stopped for a coffee, rang our next Air BnB host and then headed off for the 40 minute drive to a pretty cool house in Ammoudia. Our host is an architect and it shows in the house.
We, basically, unloaded, cooked dinner and did the log, during which an owl called outside but we couldn’t find it at short notice, so it too will have to wait till tomorrow.
28.9.17 Lake Kerkini
We spent the day around the lake, accessing it at different points, seeing much the same birds at each, with some exceptions, and finishing with a Kerkini Pelagic, as we called it!
We started with breakfast with our host at 6.45, left at about 7.30 and stopped first at the dam wall in Lithotopos. We had a Black Stork, Pygmy Cormorants and several Common Snipe out in the open, we also saw our first Common Moorhens of the trip and Mr H had a Green Sandpiper that pissed off before I got onto it.
On to a side track on the eastern side of the lake (which we concentrated on all day) and we had another Black Stork, a brilliant Green Sandpiper on a rocky island, a Common Sandpiper, good views of Penduline Tit, Grey Wagtails and a Common Kingfisher.
A little further along near a village called Limnohori we reached the track along the top of the embankment and for the next two or three hours drove slowly along stopping at vantage points over the lake – highlights were flocks of Pied Avocets, 11 Caspian terns, thousands of Eurasian Teal, hundreds of Northern Shoveler, Common Pintail and Northern Mallard. In the background approx 4,000 Greater Flamingos and 500 White Pelicans. They were pretty distant still, but identifiable by the amount of black on their underwings compared to the much paler Dalmatian Pelicans also visible.
We drove on along the wall and reached the drier areas where the lake had receded. We came across a shallow, weed choked pond and among the Common Moorhens two Little Crakes wandered about out in the open providing excellent scope views.
While we were watching them we found two Coypus Myocastor coypus large beaver-like rodents feeding placidly on the water logged vegetation. Another first for both of us.
Getting off the track finally, near the head of the lake we drove around to cross the River Strymonas, the main feeder river for the lake, and walked a track near it for Great Spotted Woodpecker and a fly over flock of 6 Hawfinch.
From there we hammered round to Kerkini village again for coffee and bought some buffalo meat for dinner. The area is famous for buffalo meat, yoghurt, cheese etc and we had come across several herds of the massive beasts on our travels.
Then it was back to Mandraki – another point to observe the lake from, hoping for a closer look at the Flamingos and pelicans but they weren’t any closer. We did add Spotted Redshank, Wood Sandpiper and Kentish Plover to our day list and while we ate lunch, Squacco Heron and Hen Harrier (the latter to our trip list). I tossed some rocks the heron’s way to make it fly as it seemed to be stuck in the mud for ages….
As we left the lake a Green Woodpecker flew ahead of us and perched up in a tree so we finally managed some decent views of this difficult-to-see-properly bird.
We decided to take a boat trip on the lake and some enquiries at the information centre back in Kerkini again saw us down at the small ‘harbour’ negotiating a one hour boat trip for 40 euro. We dubbed it the Kerkini Pelagic and sailed out onto a flat calm lake with Yasilly (probably not the correct spelling, but that’s what it sounded like). We puttered across the shallow lake towards the colonies, eventually catching up with and getting within 50 meters of, a flock of perhaps 500 White Pelicans on the water - spectacular! The Flamingos, we reckoned, numbered about 4,000 and although we didn’t get super close, we had impressive views of this huge flock. Greater Cormorants were just as spectacular – probably at least 1,500, most of which left the land and gathered together in a flock on the water for our perusal on our return trip. All in all it was an amazing spectacle and we felt we got our money’s worth.
We had dinner – vegies and buffalo meat, strong flavour – then went for a short walk owling. We didn’t have any luck – we were pretty tired after all – but we have heard an owl call both nights here at dusk so maybe tomorrow night we’ll try then.
29.9.17 Mountains – Serres & the Bulgarian border track
A bit of a delay getting off this morning due to the need to wash some clothes, wait for the machine to finish and hang them out.
We headed for Serres, then found our way to the mountain road to Mt Vrontou to get to the Lailias ski run. On the way we stopped at a couple of likely spots but nothing of much consequence. We did have a Red Squirrel along the road and two small female Fallow Deer jump out of the way.
We stopped first at Kataphyria ski hotel and walked through the trees to view the exposed rock face in the hope of Blue Rock Thrush – not a hope, but we did have a bird wave of Tits, including a Crested Tit I didn’t manage to get on to and a Eurasian Treecreeper - the first for the trip.
On then to Lailias but it was pretty dead – just a single Great Spotted Woodpecker. We drove the circuit and stopped at an open area further along the road (before the pond). Here we had more tits, but little else, until we took a walk away from the car and a Black Woodpecker called and perched up high in a fir about 20 meters from where we’d parked – isn’t it always the way? Everything is always at the car when you get back…. It was about 300 meters away, but stayed put until we were within 100 meters before disappearing. At last, a ‘decent’ view following our last encounter. We had been targeting Nutcracker, but despite some false alarms, didn’t see hide nor hair.
It was cold up the mountain, @ 1800 meters, dropping to 6 degrees with a cold northern wind taking away any remaining warmth. We were glad of our jackets for the first time on the trip. Back down at Serres it was 20 degrees again.
We decided to head up to Mt Belles at the north end of the lake and try the rough track out of Ano Poroia which ended at a military outpost on the Bulgarian border.
It took us a while to get there as the road up was really shit – broken and potholed, narrow and twisting. A few larger 4WDs and a truck loaded with logs came down the hill and made us very wary rounding the blind corners, but we arrived safely at the top, where the road was barred, and parked up for a wander around. It was about 1600 metres, no wind, but pretty cool. We had a look into Bulgaria – looked pretty much the same as the Greek side - then Mr H found a Lesser Spotted Woodpecker and we had decent views of it in some spindly trees.
A track 300 meters from the top was recommended as a possible Rock Partridge site so we walked quietly along it. Hearing the ‘tap tap’ of a woodpecker we tried to find it in the trees above the track, but couldn’t get onto it. We struggled up a very steep slope, pushing through ferns and brambles, small trees falling in our path and yet the tapping continued. Eventually we found the culprit and much to our delight it was a White-backed Woodpecker, our 7th woodpecker species of the trip and my 5th woodpecker lifer! It was freaking hard work, but worth it. We also had good views of members of a flock of Hawfinches, but no sign of any partridges or bugger all else.
Back down the track to the main road and the journey home, stopping to pick up some food on the way.
Determined to identify the bloody owl we’ve missed each night, we set up chairs in the middle of the front garden before dusk and settled in, torch, bins and camera at the ready. Sure enough just as it went dark, a manic chuckling sounded behind us and we swung round to get owl no 2 for the trip – a Little Owl sat up on the wire looking at us as we looked at him, before flying off to his night’s hunting.
30.9.17 From Ammoudia to Nestoria
We left our lovely host with gifts of herbs and cake at 7.45 and headed west. It was a 300 km drive to our destination and Mr H had chosen secondary roads as a more direct scenic route.
We got ‘lost’ a couple of times and went round in circles in Kilkis until we found the right road outta town, but otherwise it was a relatively uneventful trip.
We stopped off at a set of lakes near Edessa, the first being Lake Agras where we had much improved views of Ferruginous Duck and added Tufted Duck and Black-necked Grebe to the trip list.
Lake Vegoritis was, basically, bare apart form a Long-legged Buzzard perched up for scope views.
Lake Zazari was, itself, a disappointment, but we had lunch there and a few Red-rumped Swallows showed well. On the way in, too, we totalled 10 Long-legged Buzzards perched up for crippling views. We also had a Lesser Kestrel on the way out.
We arrived at Nestoria and found our next two night’s accommodation at Maria’s place, along the main road but our balcony overlooks the river behind the house. Strangely there are no facilities for even making coffee either in our room or in the building. When we asked about eating, Maria suggested a village back along the road about 20 kms so we headed back to Mesopatamia, a small rural village, and found a taverna where we had souvlaki with a tomato/olive/onion/cucumber olive oil-drenched salad.
We drove home past signs warning of bears and wolves but were disappointed.
1.10.17 Prespa & Nestoria
We compromised with our host regarding breakfast time and sat down at 7.30. It was a frosty morning when we went outside and chased down a pair of singing Wood Larks in the field across the road.
We set off up the valley and through the mountains towards Prespa stopping off a couple of times at tracks into the oak forests blanketing the steep slopes. Our target today was Grey-headed Woodpecker. There were bear and wolf warning signs along the road but unfortunately we didn’t get lucky. Birds were a bit thin on the ground, but we did find a dead Beech Marten on the road – an overnight roadkill and it was in perfect condition.
We turned off the main road and up again and down over the mountains to the lakes at Prespa village. This is the village closest to Albania and the two lakes form part of the border and with the Former Republic Of Macedonia – part of the old Yugoslavia. The water was flat calm and there was no wind, but it was cold (it had got down to 2 degrees as we crossed the mountain passes). We stopped just before the village to check on some buntings and could hear men on the far slope with dogs – obviously hunting parties. There were a few shotgun blasts and we thought we heard partridge in flight, but saw nothing.
We parked up near the small, empty marina and walked along the lake shore, a rough cliff on our right, the water below us on the left. Small flocks of birds lifted and dropped among the bushes and rocks ahead of us and we eventually built a list of Chiffchaffs, Willow Warblers, European Goldfinches, Common Linnets, Eurasian Blackcaps, Cirl Buntings, 2 Greater Whitethroats and, finally, Rock Buntings. A single Blue Rock Thrush showed for a short period 100 meters in front of us and Black-necked Grebes paddled around with Little Grebes below us. Oh, and we had a juvenile Common Gull on the marina among the Black-heads – unusual sight so far from the coast.
We returned to the marina area and had coffee in a charming outdoor seating area. It was all very lovely and I really enjoyed the location.
We headed back over the mountains to the main road then turned left and up another steep winding road towards Florina. We stopped at the top near a ski lift, but didn’t reach the bare rock we had hoped for, so dropped back down a bit and had lunch.
Again we explored a few tracks from the road. One of these meandered along the side of a little stream, opening up into what appeared to be an abandoned farm area where plum and apple trees still produced fruit – we helped ourselves to a few. On the ground we found several large ‘dumps’ of what we believe were bear shit! There were obvious seeds from the plums in the deposits and the only animal that might have left cow patty-size shits with seeds in them was a bear – judging by the dump size, a big bear! Once again, however, no luck - enough to give you the shits, har har har…….. We did find a dead shrew of some species (seems to be the day of the dead) which I think is a Common Shrew Sorex araneus.
Heading back towards home we took a detour up, yet another steepish road to take a look at the Albanian border post, then it was head for home – or at least the turn off to Mesopatamia where we followed a long horseshoe-shaped road for about 25 kms to Nestoria.
We were looking for places to go owling later - and still looking for our target bird. We didn’t turn up anything new but having 1 Long-legged and several Common Buzzards, a Lesser Kestrel and getting great views of Corn Bunting isn’t too bad.
Reaching Nestoria, I was gagging for another coffee and we found a part of the village we hadn’t seen before, a slightly trendy café/taverna supplied the welcome brew and we decided to return later for dinner - the German/Greek waitress spoke excellent English and that always makes it easier.
After a rest at home, we returned to the café and had hamburgers for dinner before setting off up the hills again to play for Little, Scops and Tawny Owls with absolutely no outcome. It was only 9 degrees with a cool breeze and we were both quite tired so gave it away after a couple of location attempts.
A second day with no lifers! What’s going on, Dermo’? Mind you getting excellent views of Rock Buntings, Corn Buntings and Black-necked Grebes etc isn’t a bad day out either.
2.10.17 Nestoria to Ioannina
We were delayed leaving, having to wait for Maria to finish work in the service station across the road (owned by her husband, we believe) at 8.15, so she could then give us breakfast hence it was 9.00 before we left and headed out the back door of Nestoria. This proved to be a good choice of road – through the mountains with no other cars for the main part, good views of forested mountains as far as the eye could see, steep ravines and mountain tops – and a covey of about 8 Rock Partridges along the side of the road.
Once the road descended into the valley, we drove alongside a wide, rock-strewn river bed with a small creek in what was obviously a much bigger river when the snow melts. The road was in good condition and there was no traffic, we saw virtually no one at all for about two hours.
We arrived in Konista at about morning coffee time and parked up to have same. It was a medium sized village – very busy and, for the first time, we saw other tourists, though not many. We had our coffee, bought bread – I said ‘hello’ instead of ‘thankyou’ which crushed any confidence I might have started to gain using the local language. We fuelled up and were on our way (1.29.9 euro per litre diesel).
We decided to drive ‘the long way round’ Mt Timfi and headed off up a twisting mountain road.
It only got worse.
Or better, depending on your perception.
For the next 4 or so hours we wound up and up and down and down and up and down a narrow twisting, sometime unsealed, half overgrown at times, potholed road with, oftentimes, a sheer drop on one side and a cliff on the other. Recent rock falls had been partly cleared, barriers missing or broken, blind corners and holes that would swallow Hannibal’s elephants – it was all there. It was a slow drive with little birding or birds even. We stopped for lunch beside a river and had a White-throated Dipper and a Grey Wagtail and that was about it.
The scenery was spectacular, no other words to describe it - and impossible to capture any sense of it in a single photograph. Steep gorges, cloud encrusted mountain peaks, forested or bare slopes, rocky outcrops, narrow streets in villages perched on the hillsides, houses all whitewashed with, mostly, red tile roofs, although some used what looked like local slate. We didn't meet any cars until we were two thirds of the way through and the road improved, apart from the occasional shepherd, crook and all, herding goats or sheep. It was an awesome road in more ways than one.
We arrived on the outskirts of Ioannina in the depths of the mountains, reputedly the most beautiful town in Greece, set in a valley beside a large lake, surrounded by awesome looking peaks and found our way to a narrow backstreet and our unit accommodation for the next three days/4 nights. A lovely modern apartment – two bedrooms with double beds for the first time on our trip, a full kitchen, lounge, balcony etc. We had a rest then went for a walk, bought some food and relaxed for the evening.
3.10.17 The Mountains
We set off at 7.30 and found our way to the start of a mountain drive at Petrovouni, from there it was a torturous drive up and up, hair pin bends, narrow road etc. We eventually broke free of the up-thing, then it was down, down into the valley – and the cloud. Thick and fog-like it made the trip even more exciting. Exciting? Well, maybe….
Once again it was up and up and this time when we cleared the cloud we were still climbing but around the side of a mountain, rather than directly up. The road was strewn with fallen rocks, on one occasion I got out and cleared the road ahead, just to make sure we didn’t catch anything under the car and so Mr H didn’t have to go to close to the edge. In places the road had fallen away, leaving the metal barrier hanging in space, in others patch work had been done leaving a rough unsealed section. Very tiring driving, every corner a mystery with a potential direct fall to the bottom without touching anything. Fortunately there were very few cars on the road again so using the whole road, for what that was worth, was safe enough. It was also very quiet, no wind, so hearing any oncoming vehicles was quite likely. We reached the village of Matsouki and negotiated the extremely narrow, paved roads through the buildings to again start driving perpendicularly up. We eventually reached our goal – at about 2000 meters at a crossroads, a spot called Baros, on the side of Mt Kikoutas, we parked and wandered around looking for our target birds – Alpine Chough, Wallcreeper and Alpine Accentor. We failed on the latter two, but had great views of the choughs wheeling and calling and distant views on the ground. We also had Northern Wheatear, heaps of Black Redstarts (well, about 10) and 3 Water Pipits. Towards the end of our local wander, scenery picture taking an eagle glided over a ridge and provided enough of a view to determine it as a Booted Eagle.
The scenery was amazing. Once again, very difficult to capture it in one photo. I took a few panorama shots but it just doesn’t really do it. The silence was incredible too, considering how far we could see – absolutely still, not a sound. At most of our stops we could hear the tinkling of the goat and cow bells that the locals string around the necks of certain animals in the flock. It’s a lovely sound across the valleys but I couldn’t help thinking what it does to the wearer – must drive them scatty.
We moved on, now dropping down the far side of the mountain towards Metsovo coming across a small village called Anthousa. We stopped for coffee with the local tavern owner and two locals, whom I believe were shepherds. Language barriers prevented almost any conversation, but they were very welcoming and friendly and the coffee was some of the best we had tasted.
Heading on again, we stopped at the side of the road 30 minutes later and had our bread, cheese and ham while taking in yet another stunning view.
On down the mountain, more switchbacks, flocks of goats, the occasional stop to look and listen, but nothing else of importance seen. In fact, the birds were very few and far between along the road, with almost nothing flying up in front of the trundling vehicle.
We finally reached Metsovo and got on a major highway, through long tunnels under the mountains we had been on all morning, arriving back in Ioannina around 15.30. Mr H was knackered so we had a quiet afternoon, during which we both had a nana nap, then discussed our options for the morrow.
4.10.17 Trek – Vikos Gorge area
Wallcreeper – we were really trying to find a good location. Were they still up the mountains above 2000 meters? Had they come down already for winter? We had NO idea. But decided that we’d try for the high altitude option as there were still birds at that level yesterday and it wasn’t very cold yet.
Now we needed cliffs. Not just any cliff, but a steep, high, fuck off type slab of sheer rock.
So, we, or should I say Mr H and make him responsible? chose a spot in the mountains (which are, of course, the Pindos Mountains), near the Vikos Gorge where it looked like we could ‘walk in’, and up, to really good cliffs that resembled perfect Wallcreeper habitat.
So, at 7.30 we left ‘home’ and drove to Mikro Papigo, a tiny village at the end of the bitumen and the start of what has now become known as That Bloody Trek. It took us two hours to get there so we set off in high spirits at 9.30, Mr H carrying my scope and his tripod (it’s lighter than mine) in a back pack with some food, me, just my camera belt as usual.
Cutting a long, looong story short, it took us 3 hours to climb 6 kms and about 1000 meters in altitude. It was really tough. I mean REALLY tough. We had to stop every 120 paces or so to catch our breath and relax our muscles. The track zigzagged across the face of the slope – which was OK, but was rough as guts and full of loose stones, rocks and dirt. I mean the footing was awful. Every time you put your foot down, it half slid from under you and our paces got shorter and shorter. At one stage I didn’t think I could go on, but managed to pull it together and drag my very sorry ass up that dam mountain.
We finally reached a refuge station where hikers can stay if they choose to book. It was at the top of the 6km slope – and on a ridge line. There was NO WAY we were going any further so we pulled my scope and his tripod out of the backpack to scan the cliffs, only to find my scope wouldn’t fit on his tripod screw…..Jesus, Mary & Joseph….anyway, we did manage to balance it on the tripod and scan away, but the cliffs were too far away really and unless we were lucky enough to see a little fecker in flight it was almost impossible to pick one up on the rock. We did try, we really did, but had to admit defeat and, after resting for an hour, started the descent.
If we thought going up was hard, going down was hell.
Thigh muscles screaming, knees in bits, toes bunched up trying to hang on, my balance not everything it should be, Mr H found a stick and that helped, but I felt like Blind Pew on Treasure Island tapping along on the rocks. We both went down on our asses, once each, in the two and a half hours it took us to get down and limp into town. We were knackered, I mean I consider that I can put up with a lot, but That Bloody Trek nearly did for both of us. We really did deserve a Wallcreeper, but luck was not on our side - I must have been a bad child.
Birds? We had rather distant views of Northern Wheatear, Common Ravens, plenty of Black Redstarts, a few Rock Buntings and Eurasian Linnets. Oh and we did have a European Stonechat - the first for the trip, but as Mr H succinctly put it – “it was a long bloody way to go for a Stonechat” He also heard but we couldn’t see, a Red-billed Chough, also the only one so far.
At certain points on the Bloody Trek there are ‘water stations’ which provide a trickle of water out of a pipe into a small trough arrangement. In one of these troughs I found two small toads – turned out to be Yellow-bellied Toad Bombina variegate.
We had coffee – GOD, did I need that coffee – then eased our painful way back to the car and set off for the nearby Vikos Gorge – reputedly the deepest gorge in the world although that seems to be a debatable point. According to Wikipedia if you’re a gorge lobbyist you might think otherwise.
A gorge lobbyist? WTF?
Moving on……..as we rounded a corner I saw and shouted ‘SNAKE’. Mr H rammed on the brakes and we ran back – well, hobbled quickly back, to see a meter long snake heading for the bush. I got one poor photo before it disappeared, but believe it was (a very common apparently) Eastern Montpellier Snake Malpolon insignitus.
We drove around the valley and out to Vikos which is another tiny village that overlooks the northern end of the Gorge. It was pretty spectacular and, again, impossible to capture in a photo. We sat for a while and scanned the cliffs for that farking Wallcreeper, but again it was all too far away and we didn’t really have a chance. We did see a couple of very distant Alpine Choughs.
As we walked back towards the car a Red Squirrel ran around in a walnut tree and sat up for photos. He, or possibly she, was super-cute in his/her darker winter coat and extra tufted ears. So ended our fruitless (so far) quest for the mythical (?) Wallcreeper. Mind you we didn’t do very well with Alpine Accentor either…..
We got home 12 hours after starting out and relaxed after hot showers, steak dinner and beers. Tomorrow we plan to just wander around Ioannina, i.e. no birding. The next two days will see Mr H doing a lot of driving so we plan to take it easy in preparation – and after today, we’ll need the break. I’m just getting too old for this shit.
5.10.17 A Day off
As planned yesterday we took a day off birding, well, more or less. Got up late, had breakfast, then drove through Ioannina to the north end of the lake (we’re staying nearer the south end) and parked up near the old fort on the lake’s edge. We went into the ruin and, while Mr H got himself an education on Ali Pasha and the fort’s history I enjoyed a quiet cup of coffee at the on-site café.
We then walked through the old town, groaning and twitching like old men following our mountaineering efforts of yesterday, which is an intense shopping area with touristy type souvenir shops and silversmiths (for which the town is famous) as well as ‘normal’ shops for clothes, bread, fruit and veg, fish, religious icons etc
It was very busy but most people seemed to be locals. We wandered around for about an hour buying a few bits and pieces then sat at one of the many cafes for coffee and watched the world go by – it was very pleasant and a nice relax after the last two weeks.
After an hour or so we wandered again and ended up on the lake-front seeking a place for lunch. Just near the car a suitable taverna seemed the place to go and we had a long 2 hour lunch including a huge Greek salad, fried feta, bread and a plate of assorted meats to share. The waitress talked me into trying some sort of ouzo served in a small bottle that I drank with water and ice and felt all the better for it. (Mr H as designated driver only allowed himself a small taster.) As we left the tavern we had a Wood Warbler across the road in the trees by the lakeside. We both felt a little sleepy after lunch so headed home and crashed for a while.
Once we had had our nana nap we headed down to the south end of the lake to see what was there and drove down a couple of unsealed roads ending up at a bike path and a bridge where we had several Common Snipe feeding out in the open, the first Eurasian Wigeon of the trip and a small flock of Hawfinches as the highlights. Another rocky laneway and good views of a Cetti’s Warbler and that was it for the day.
6.10.17 Ioanina to Katakolo
We got up, packed up and locked up before hitting the frogging toad at 7.30.
It was a 300+ kilometre drive to Katacolo and we did most of it on a major highway at 100+ kms/hr. At least as far as the bridge from ‘Northern’ Greece to the Peloponnese – the Rio Antirrio bridge, one of the longest cable hung bridges apparently. The most impressive thing was the toll – 13.30 euros ($AU20).
After the bridge the roads reduced to a one way each way normal road with no more tolls.
We stopped off at a couple of sites. Firstly along the coast to Cape Araxos where we couldn’t reach the end as it is a military area and the military wouldn’t let us go all the way out. We saw 4 or 5 jet fighters take off from a nearby airbase too. We stopped at a small café and I photographed a Tessellated Skipper Muschampia tessellum.
A little further on at a holiday style beach area with a fresh water lake nearby we scoped Greater Flamingos, Little & Great Egrets and other usual stuff before turning our attention to the Umbrella Pines behind us where we had at least 4 Sardinian Warblers and I, finally, got a less than perfect, but tickable view of a couple of individuals. (Mr H has heard them several times on the trip but we have, until now, been unable to see them). We also had Common Redstarts, Greenfinches, Greater Whitethroat and the ubiquitous Spotted Flycatchers. We had lunch them moved on.
To the Strofylia wetlands part of the Kotyhi National park. Several Western Marsh Harriers, more Greater Flamingos, a Northern Pintail and the usual egrets including for the first time this trip – Cattle Egret (flock of ~60) and a Squacco Heron, close enough to photograph, but still not really close enough.
We reached our destination, west of Pygros, at Katacolo, a small touristy village with a large harbour on a peninsula.
Our one night Air BnB accommodation consisted of a single room with two beds, a wash basin and a wardrobe. We had to park in the street and walk up 79 steps to get to it – we only carried up essential items! The view over the bay and the harbour was beautiful, but the effort almost did us in again – our calves are still aching and my knees aren’t working very well.
However, we caught our breath, regained our poise, wiped our sweaty brows…..and headed back down to street level again and, of course, like the mountain two days ago, that was worse…..Jesus Christ….
A cup of coffee in a harbour side café sorted us out and we went for a drive around the headland looking for a place to seawatch. Most of the coast was dominated by rich looking, security heavy, private holiday homes and hotels, but we managed to find a spot to look at the flat calm, heat hazed ocean. At a great distance we saw ~6 Cory’s Shearwaters loafing along just below the horizon.
We returned to home – well I did, Mr H had a swim – followed by dinner - Greek beer, grilled sardines and fried squid, tzatziki dip and bread and a Greek salad – then crashed in our tiny room.
7.10.17 Katakolo to Monemvasia
Another day another road. We had the breakfast that Yannis supplied as part of our Air BnB deal – a Greek breakfast of Greek coffee and small, very crisp slices of toast and apricot jam. It left Mr H feeling cheated as his stomach wondered what it had done to deserve this.
We headed south getting to the motorway to Kalamata (a la the olives) then across the mountains to Sparta (a la the Spartans….) On the way we stopped at a lake and had a couple of Black-necked Grebes.
The mountains were pretty cool, the road another twisting, spectacular seesaw with tunnels cut through the living rock like something out of a James Bond movie set, steep gorges and hanging cliffs. We stopped a couple of times to, once again, give that old Wallthingy the good college try, but came away tick-less yet again.
We stopped again further on to check a couple of circling raptors – Common Buzzards – and had fleeting glimpses of a pair of Sardinian Warblers at the edge of an olive grove. On down southeast to the coast where we arrived in the rather touristy, but very cute, village of Monemvasia, our final destination before Athens. We stopped in the carpark beside the harbour overlooking the bay and the very steep sided and picturesque island-attached-to-the-mainland-by-a-causeway while we looked up the details of our accommodation – and a very big Loggerhead Turtle poked its head up briefly off shore.
We located our Air BnB stay – a large, white painted modern house outside town, perched on the slopes of the mountains, overlooking the bay. On site were the elderly parents of the host, who, we discovered, was actually in Athens. They don’t speak any English, but were very friendly and welcoming, she chatting away 10 to the dozen, us smiling and saying ‘Great’, ‘OK’, ‘Thankyou’, etc.
We had a little drive around the rocky coastline looking for gulls with one particular species in mind, but found none - nada, zip, zero. Not ONE gull of ANY description – weird! Our target species was, of course, Audouin’s, but the search will have to be resumed tomorrow.
We settled down to rest on the veranda outside our rooms with coffee and cigarettes and I casually set up the scope.
I scanned for a while, seeing absolutely nothing, took a break, then, as we chatted, scanned again and suddenly, there it was, a small, Manx-type shearwater heading right, against the wind a long way out, but the dark upperparts (looking browner in the bright sun than Manx), white underparts and general jizz defined it as a Yelkouan Shearwater. We watched for a while more, than Mr H went for a rest. I continued to seawatch until almost dusk, 19.00, but saw, literally, only 1 Great Cormorant fly past in the following 2 and a half hours! Maybe tomorrow?
8.10.17 Monemvasia peninsula south
Our target today was Audouin’s Gull so we set off for the far side of the peninsula seeking ‘wave washed rocky platforms’, harbours, beaches, islands, ports, ships, trawlers, fishermen – whatever we figured might attract same.
Near the top of the road over the mountains we stopped at a couple of likely looking places – not for said Gull but for anything else that we hoped might be around. We had a few birds – European Stonechats, good views of perched up singing Wood Lark, several slightly better, if a little distant, Sardinian Warbler views and a Red-breasted Flycatcher were the highlights.
We came down off the mountains and trolled along the coast heading in the general direction of the tip of the peninsula. We checked every rocky platform we could see, scanned harbours, islands, ports, ships, trawlers and even fishermen but couldn’t find even one GULL, never mind the target species. It was uncanny.
We go to the end of the road at a really cute little village and harbour but……no gulls. Great wave-washed platforms which, as I pointed out, if I was an Audoin’s Gull I would just fecking die for, but found only a Common Sandpiper who didn’t hang around long.
So we headed back and stopped at Neapoli for the usual 11.00 coffee. Then it was north along the coast once again gull-hunting. We ended up at yet another harbour. This one servicing a ferry service to an offshore island. From the wharf we saw gulls. Away out along a sandy spit a few gulls were milling around. We managed to find a side road behind the spit which turned into a hard-packed sandy track and followed it out to a spot behind the sand dunes where a number of camper vans had also parked up.
Trudged across the dunes to scope the 10 or so gulls 500 meters away directly in the glare, of course. We tried real hard to convince one of them to be an Audoin’s but, unfortunately, had to reluctantly admit they were only Yellow-legged.
Decided to check a salt lake behind the dunes for waders and turned up 6 Dunlin, 2 Ringed Plover, 4 Kentish Plovers, a Ruff and a Little Stint. Great views in the scope – specially the Kentish. Of course, my camera was in the car….
We headed back home then as Mr H was pretty knackered from all the driving and we needed to access wifi in the local eateries in Monemvasia for emails etc.
The Wind Star, a sail and solar driven cruise vessel, had docked offshore which was pretty cool and we checked it out as we sat and had some lunch and coffee and used the WIFI.
We went home and had a rest then hung around waiting for dusk. We did some more veranda seawatching but saw nothing – literally. While we took it in turns on the scopes, Mr H found a Blue Rock Thrush perched up on the house behind ours and we tried to turn House Sparrows into Spanish without success.
After the rest we went owling. We’d targeted a spot up the road – a gully with a few trees that seemed to offer opportunity and we parked up just on dusk and started playback – within 5 minutes we had fantastic views of 3, possibly 4, Tawny Owls calling back, perched up and flying overhead. Stunning! No luck with any of the other species though – still want Scops, but no responses. We left the Tawnys to themselves and stopped off at a road side taverna within walking distance of home and had a great meal with enough local red wine to put us to sleep.
9.10.17 Monemvasia peninsula north
Today we headed north on the peninsula from Monemvasia. We were targeting that old Gull again and vagrant land birds, hopefully….
The scenery was pretty good along the coast, but the birds were generally disappointing. A few ks north we stopped and walked in on a rough track through the rocks and low scrub towards a cliff with a huge cave in the face. Here we had European Stonechats, Corn Buntings, Sardinian Warblers, 2 Common Kestrels and a pair of Rock Nuthatches high on the cliff face – nice to catch up with them again.
We drove on stopping randomly along the way over the mountains again – Mr H reckoned it wasn’t a normal day unless he was driving hairpins. One spot we stopped at was crawling with Eurasian Blackcaps and Sardinian Warblers – in excess of 20 of each species, although, again, no really close views of the latter – they really are a bitch to see easily. At another spot we scoped another pair of Rock Nuthatches – these were proving much easier to see than I had thought – even if they were several hundred yards away.
We came down to the coast again and drove along it, stopping again here and there to check the rocks, harbours, beaches etc – but only found 2 Yellow-legged Gulls in the whole stretch.
Molaoi - we stopped to get the car washed in preparation for the drop off tomorrow – 8 euros and a half an hour relaxing while another dude did the work saw the vehicle look good as new.
Arriving back in Monemvasia we had a coffee and availed ourselves of the free WIFI again in the café. Then we walked out to the causeway-connected island and wandered round the old town for a couple of hours. It’s a big tourist attraction with narrow streets and old buildings, but my main interest was a seawatch off the front of the island – we did one for a short time but saw nothing.
We did have yet another pair of Rock Nuthatches on the cliffs above the town and a flash view of a Blue Rock Thrush lower down near the water.
A comment on the water – I was really impressed by the clarity and cleanliness of the sea – it was absolutely crystal clear everywhere along the coast. Very inviting - but I never did get wet. Whether this means it is less productive – evidenced possibly by the complete lack of any waders or gulls along the shore – or whether it is simply because no major rivers run into it, I don’t know. We surmised that the lack of gulls and shorebirds in general maybe due to the very small intertidal movement, therefore no rock pools or weed encrusted rocks are exposed to provide feeding. Whatever - barren it was.
We headed home and packed our bags. The plan is to drop the car off at the airport tomorrow, a day early, leave our check-in bags in the left luggage area and get the metro into Athens itself. We plan to do some sightseeing in the city on Wednesday before flying home late Wednesday night. This was to avoid the hassle of driving in the city itself, parking etc. Hopefully it will all work out…….
10.10.17 Monemvasia to Athens
We packed up and hit the road as dawn broke. Basically a long boring drive mainly using the motorway and paying the tolls.
We stopped off at an ancient ruin – Mycenae – which seemed like a good idea until I baulked at the E12 ($Au 20) entry fee and let Mr H go ahead alone. Instead I had a coffee and wandered around the car park filming grasshoppers and butterflies. I mean, I don’t mind seeing historical stuff, but this place was a real ruin and I just didn’t feel I’d get the value.
Heading on we reached the turnoff for the airport at 13.30, but decided it was a bit early to drop our bags off so we bypassed the airport and went down to a small fishing port on the coast where we tried to find an Audoin’s gull, but were successful only in having lunch on the quayside near some hanging octopi.
Back to the airport for 15.30 (dumped the car, total mileage in three weeks = 5,083 kms) dropped our big bags in to Bagsafe (E13 each for 24 hours) and headed for the Metro to Athens. E22 return each – an efficient, fast service that dropped us off 45 minutes later with a 10 minute walk to our next Air BnB sleep over. (Might all seem a bit extravagant – i.e. dropping the car off a day early, cost for Bagsafe and metro tickets - but when we saw how narrow the Athens streets were, how crazy the driving and how tight the parking we knew we had made a sensible choice)
We hooked up with the owner and dumped our stuff in the very cute, zany apartment he and his sister renovated recently.
After a suitable sit down we went for a walk and ended up in the major shopping area/bazaar/flea market. Brilliant!! Lots of activity, colour, noise, people, interesting shops – it really was excellent. The Acropolis high about all lit up – just as one expects to see it, we also had a flock of about 20 Alpine Swifts and 10 Pallid Swifts overhead.
We bought a few bits and pieces than stopped at a restaurant near our apartment and I treated Mr H to dinner in thanks for doing all the driving. Dolmados, Feta, chicken, falafels, coffee and quite a bit of red wine and we staggered home to crash at about 22.00. I was pretty knackered but it seemed that Athens was only coming to life – bars and cafes open and full of noise and music. It was a bit of a pity we were both a little past it…..well, maybe more than a little……
We wanted to get to the Acropolis early to avoid the crowds – it opened at 8 and we were there at 5 past. A 20 euro entry fee and we spent the next 2 hours wandering around taking photos, marvelling at the structure that is so famous there’s no need to describe it. By 10 the place was getting crowded so we got out. (We had the Alpine Swifts again, a Blue Rock Thrush, a Eurasian Kestrel perched up on an ancient pillar and several singing Sardinian Warblers).
Back into the shopping and walking and we checked out Monastiraki and Syntagma Squares (the latter where the riots took place a few months ago as people protested the austerity program) and bought some more take-home stuff in the markets, then back to our apartment again for a rest before lunch in a small bar/tavern and the return trip to the airport.
In one of the squares we had a very low parakeet that we are fairly sure was a Monk Parakeet – an introduced species with a well established feral population in Athens.
The flight left on time at 20.15 (Athens time) and was uneventful, landing at 22.30 (Dublin time). Mr H grabbed his bags and took off to get the 22.55 bus to Belfast while I got my hire car and arrived back at my Mum’s place just before midnight.
If you’ve read this far I only hope you have enjoyed it. If you’re an experienced European birder there probably is nothing in my report to excite you, however, if you’re coming to Europe for the first time there may be something of interest.
One thing worth noting – it was bloody hard work. The birds remained difficult to see, discreet, flighty and were a bit thin on the ground. We believe we may have been a couple of weeks late for the main southerly migration, but, even given that, it was still hard work. We did get a grand total of 175 species, I did achieve 42 lifers and 8 new birds for my European list, 5 new reptiles, 13 new butterflies, 3 mammals and 1 amphibian. Mr H had 16 lifers. We knew going in that it wasn’t the best time of year, but had hoped to connect with more migrants, however, we had a great trip with no major dramas and for two old friends (we’re both 62 and have been friends for 50 years) we had a good time.
If you have any questions, comments or observations please don’t hesitate to contact me via firstname.lastname@example.org.