Friday 18th May 2018
NORTHERN GREECE & SOUTHWEST BULGARIA – PELICANS & PYGMIES
Friday 18th - Wednesday 23rd May 2018
Our group met for the 0355hrs check in at London Gatwick and it was good to get through security and have a coffee and some food before boarding the plane. The flight took off a little after schedule and just over three hours later, we touched down in Thessaloniki to a lovely, warm 25 degree heat.
As the plane was taxiing down the runway, we spotted several COMMON HOUSE MARTINS plus HODDED CROW, COMMON SWIFT and EURASIAN STONE-CURLEW!
After picking up our luggage, we met good friend and local guide Dobry and began the drive around the northern side of the city. Eventually we turned off the main road and headed down towards the coast and to several large lagoons overlooking the Ionian Sea.
We pulled over in a suitable spot for a scan of the lagoon and within a few seconds had found several CURLEW SANDPIPERS, some in pristine summer plumage and then three BROAD-BILLED SANDPIPERS. These scarce calidrids fed constantly and their stripy heads and drooping bill tip could easily be seen.
A lone LITTLE STINT fed quietly with a small group of COMMON RINGED PLOVERS whilst LITTLE and COMMON TERNS flew past. PYGMY CORMORANT was added to our lists with a bird perched out on a branch in the water and a few YELLOW-LEGGED GULLS were also noted.
A lovely flock of GREATER FLAMINGO roosted on the far side of the pools and with some diligent scanning, Angie did well to find a distant TEREK SANDPIPER feeding alongside a GREY PLOVER.
We moved closer and had some really good views of this scarce wader and were surprised to find two more making it three birds! More CURLEW SANDPIPERS were seen plus some lovely looking RUDDY TURNSTONE in breeding plumage and a single SANDERLING which was an unexpected find.
A walk was taken along a track and around the edge of the lake and we found thousands of SMALL WHITES with CLOUDED YELLOW, EASTERN DAPPLED WHITE and LARGE WHITE thrown in for good measure. A LESSER EMPEROR and RED-VEINED DARTER were seen around the edge of the water and a little further on, we found a KENTISH PLOVER chick along with the two adults nearby.
Not wanting to disturb the bird, we retraced our steps and headed back to the van for a drink and then drove to the end of the lagoon, where a scan of gulls produced around six LITTLE GULLS plus SLENDER-BILLED GULLS in breeding plumage.
A dusky SPOTTED REDSHANK fed at the back of the water and a flock of 60 CURLEW SANDPIPERS tottered along the waters edge. Once again, careful scanning produced four MARSH SANDPIPERS feeding in the shallow water and although views were not close, we were delighted to see this species. A couple of distant CASPIAN TERNS were seen flying away whilst we stood in the shade.
With some time remaining, we headed to another area where several WESTERN MARSH HARRIERS hunted and a hepatic COMMON CUCKOO flew low in front of us across the road. A couple of BLACK-CROWNED NIGHT HERONS were seen in flight and on raised wooden railings offshore we saw our first DALMATIAN PELICANS of the tour.
The sky had darkened somewhat and it was a surprise when rain drops began to fall, which sent us into the van and we started our journey towards the hotel. We didn’t get far when David spotted a LITTLE OWL perched on a derelict building which soon dropped down from view.
A couple of COMMON BUZZARDS were on roadside posts and a distant ringtail harrier which unfortunately dropped over a ridge to evade identification. Much easier to see were several EUROPEAN ROLLERS and EUROPEAN BEE-EATERS perched out in the open.
A quick stop was made when a superb male LESSER KESTREL was spotted on top of a telegraph post, dispatching a very large green grasshopper which it then took away from our prying eyes!
We arrived at our hotel in the hills overlooking the valley, with Lake Kerkini in the distance and met for a pre-dinner drink before a wonderful home-cooked meal.
After completing the bird list we retired to bed, after what had been a very long but rewarding first day of our trip to Northern Greece and Bulgaria.
Saturday 19th May 2018
It was lovely to be awoken by the songs of EURASIAN HOOPOE, COMMON NIGHTINGALE and CIRL BUNTING before meeting for a pre-breakfast walk behind the hotel. During the night a couple of EUROPEAN SCOP’S OWLS had been heard in the village.
Unfortunately by the time some of the group met, it had started to rain so we spent time birding from the hotel balcony which was pretty productive. Several EURASIAN JAYS flew to and fro from the trees surrounding the hotel, whilst a male LESSER WHITETHROAT rattled from its perch nearby.
Neil did well to spot two different LITTLE OWLS on the rooftops in the village which also had a few RED-RUMPED SWALLOWS, COMMON HOUSE MARTINS and BARN SWALLOWS buzzing around.
A male CIRL BUNTING was spotted in a dead tree, along with a LESSER WHITETHROAT and GREENFINCH before dropping down from view.
Our fantastic view across the valley soon disappeared as low cloud rolled in, but it was soon time for breakfast. This was a veritable feast with lots of choice and some good Greek coffee which went down a treat with some of the group.
We left later than planned and it stopped raining as we made our way out of the village. The cloud started to lift and amazingly, a few groups of ROSY STARLINGS were moving through. To begin with small numbers were seen, then larger groups and by the time we had reached our first site at Mandraki, we estimated that we had seen around 300 birds!
Another good find was a female RED-FOOTED FALCON perched on roadside wires before heading west and nearby, a cracking male RED-BACKED SHRIKE perched up for us on scrub.
Reaching Mandraki Harbour we strolled to the lake where the reed-beds held good numbers of singing GREAT REED WARBLERS and lots of GREAT CRESTED GREBES out on the water. SQUACCO HERONS and BLACK-CROWNED NIGHT HERONS were numerous, as were PYGMY CORMORANTS and COMMON TERNS.
A large man-made island further away was crowded with hundreds of GREAT WHITE PELICANS with a few DALMATIAN PELICANS out on the water. A few COMMON POCHARD flew past and in the reed-beds, a male LITTLE BITTERN barked his song.
COMMON CUCKOOS chased around and CETTI’S WARBLERS were heard but remained unseen in the reedy scrub. As we got back to the van, a male EURASIAN BLACKCAP was heard and seen in the trees close to the path.
The weather was warming up nicely as we crossed the Strimonas River and headed round to the eastern embankment where we went for a stroll. EUROPEAN BEE-EATERS were very common as were SQUACCO HERONS that fed in the marshy pools. EASTERN OLIVACEOUS WARBLERS were very common in the brambles bordering the lake.
EURASIAN SPOONBILLS fed in the shallows and a single BLACK STORK drifted away over the tree line which was frustrating. Jane and Mike found a lovely pair of LESSER GREY SHRIKE out in the meadow which looked great through the scopes.
Butterflies and dragonflies were very much in evidence including BROAD SCARLET and RED-VEINED DARTER, SCARCE CHASER, SMALL RED-EYED DAMSEL and GREEN-EYED HAWKER amongst others. CLOUDED YELLOWS, EASTERN DAPPLED WHITES and SMALL WHITES were once again everywhere on the embankments.
On our return journey back to the van, a SYRIAN WOODPECKER was seen in a poplar tree before vanishing from view and a male PENDULINE TIT was seen briefly before flying back across the water.
Lunch was enjoyed in the shade whilst nearby an EASTERN GREEN LIZARD and a LATTICE BROWN BUTTERFLY were seen.
Afterwards we walked along the track but it was quiet except for some showy COMMON NIGHTINGALES and a pair of EURASIAN GOLDEN ORIOLES that showed reasonably well in the trees.
Butterflies included KNAPWEED, SPOTTED and QUEEN OF SPAIN FRITILLARIES plus MALLOW SKIPPER and BROWN ARGUS.
Our last site of the day was another track where as soon as we left the van, a superb pair of MASKED SHRIKES were spotted by Angie and we had great views of this sought-after species.
The heat was keeping birds quieter than normal but we found SPOTTED FLYCATCHERS and a single GREAT BITTERN which was circling the marshes. Neil found two soaring raptors along with another BLACK STORK which turned out to be two EUROPEAN HONEY BUZZARDS, giving some lovely views.
Lots of insect activity kept Sally, Lawrence and David busy taking many photographs and another pair of MASKED SHRIKES were seen along the track before we turned round and wandered back.
The journey back to base didn’t take long and it was good to get back for a refreshing shower and cold beer or was it a refreshing beer and cold shower!
Our evening meal was once again excellent and we didn’t leave the table hungry! The bird-list took longer than normal as we had seen such a rich variety of wildlife, recording it took time.
We headed off to bed after an action-packed day, very much looked forward to the following day.
Sunday 20th May 2018
The weather was absolutely perfect as some of the group met for a pre-breakfast walk which took us up a track behind the hotel. A singing SUBALPINE WARBLER was heard and then seen in the dead bushes bordering the path, whilst another was seen from the hotel entrance as we made our way up the track.
Lots of NETTLE-TREE BUTTERFLIES were seen and our first LARGE TORTOISESHELL, SOUTHERN WHITE ADMIRAL and BLACK-VEINED WHITE of the tour. CIRL BUNTINGS sang and we added COMMON CHAFFINCH, EURASIAN WREN and EURASIAN BLUE TIT to our list plus we heard a single SOMBRE TIT.
The sun was beautiful on our backs when we made our way down the track as breakfast was calling. It was delicious with food continually being brought out, so we knew we wouldn’t starve!
Afterwards we loaded the van and drove down to the western edge of Lake Kerkini. As we left the village, it became apparent how many NETTLE-TREE BUTTEFLIES were on the wing with thousands on the roads, tracks and in the air. Further along the main road were two EUROPEAN HONEY BUZZARDS with a single BLACK KITE and a couple of flocks of ROSY STARLINGS passed through.
A stop in Kerkini harbour to arrange our boat trip gave us the chance to look at more butterflies including MARBLED FRITILLARY, SOUTHERN COMMA and loads more NETTLE-TREE BUTTERFLIES.
With our boat trip arranged for later in the afternoon, we spent the morning exploring a disused quarry area, which began with a singing male BLACK-EARED WHEATEAR that Lawrence found up on the rocks, whilst overhead a pair of LESSER SPOTTED EAGLES displayed. As we walked slowly along the track, a pair of WOODCHAT SHRIKES showed well and a glance above produced an EGYPTIAN VULTURE circling overhead. This is a very rare bird in mainland Greece with only two pairs in the whole country, making our find even more special!
A SHORT-TOED SNAKE EAGLE flew over as did a dark-morph BOOTED EAGLE and then a female LEVANT SPARROWHAWK took to the air! The warm weather was obviously conducive for raptors and also insects with many more butterflies and dragonflies to look at.
Dense scrub held MASKED SHRIKES plus a couple of HAWFINCH were seen briefly and as we made our way along the path, a singing male OLIVE-TREE WARBLER was heard but it remained out of sight.
As we returned to the van a few spots of rain fell, so it was pretty good timing and from the shelter of a large tree we watched two male BLACK-EARED WHEATEARS flitting around on the rock face.
It was then time for lunch which we enjoyed in a local tavern, with superb food and huge portions. Afterwards we drove along the southern shore and made a stop when we came across a huge flock of ROSY STARLINGS feeding on Mulberries beside the road. We had superb views of these brightly-coloured birds and estimated that a good 300 birds or more were present, which were very noisy!
We reached Kerkini harbour and met Nikos our skipper, who took us out towards the flooded forest on the northern shore of the lake. During the next couple of hours were were treated to a sight, smell and sound extravaganza with thousands of GREAT CORMORANTS plus SQUACCO, GREY and BLACK-CROWNED NIGHT HERONS, GLOSSY IBIS, PYGMY CORMORANTS, EURASIAN SPOONBILLS with chicks and both DALMATIAN and WHITE PELICANS.
BLACK-NECKED GREBES and LITTLE GULLS swam on the mirror flat water and time flew past as it was just so good. As we motored across the lake we could hear the rumble of thunder and on reaching the hotel and enjoying a refreshing shower, thunder and lightning began with heavy rain that continued until the early hours of the morning!
Monday 21st May 2018
A much cooler morning greeted us as we met for our earlier breakfast and once again, we didn’t go hungry!
On our journey east we passed a flock of ROSY STARLINGS and several singing BLACK-HEADED BUNTINGS on roadside wires. We headed northwards from Sidirokastro and explored some of the valleys in the surrounding area.
Our first port of call was a rocky gorge where we took a leisurely stroll and singing SUBALPINE WARBLERS showed well, plus BLUE ROCK THRUSH, CIRL BUNTING, WOODCHAT SHRIKE and our first good views of HAWFINCH. A pale SHORT-TOED SNAKE EAGLE circled the hillside which was alive with butterflies including SLOE and ILEX HAIRSTREAKS.
We continued our journey north making several stops along the way, where we saw EUROPEAN SERIN and a male EASTERN ORPHEAN WARBLER singing from a tree, which soon dropped from view. Clouds were looking a little dodgy over the distant hills as we entered more open countryside, where COMMON WHITETHROATS were very common plus RED-BACKED SHRIKES and a single WHINCHAT were seen.
After parking we wandered along the road seeing more RED-BACKED SHRIKES plus a lovely female LESSER SPOTTED WOODPECKER feeding in a small tree. It fed for over 10 minutes completely unconcerned about being watched! We then set up lunch in a flat area and as soon as we began, there were a few spots of rain which got heavier and heavier meaning lunch was slightly rushed.
Weather to the south looked reasonably good so we headed that way and made a stop where the Whinchat had been seen earlier. A singing MARSH WARBLER could be heard in the shrubs at the back of a field but remained unseen.
Back down to the south we began our journey westwards which started with a EUROPEAN ROLLER on roadside wires and then we were waylaid by a small flock of hunting falcons which turned out to be eight ELEONORA’S FALCONS! They hunted over fields before coming over our heads which was a real delight! A single EURASIAN HOBBY was present with them whilst another SHORT-TOED SNAKE EAGLE hovered over the fields.
We headed up to a quarry where we had previously seen Western Rock Nuthatch, but despite a thorough search there was no sign. We did however find EURASIAN CRAG MARTINS, RED-RUMPED SWALLOWS, BLUE ROCK THRUSH, BLACK-EARED WHEATEAR and some lovely GREEN TOADS.
There were a few rumbles of thunder so we retreated down to the van and it rained heavily just as we got inside!
With time spare and as we were passing, we called in at Mandraki harbour and here we had good views of four LITTLE BITTERNS, whilst out on the lake were a flock of BLACK, WHITE-WINGED and WHISKERED TERNS feeding over the floating vegetation.
In the carpark a flock of around 70 ROSY STARLINGS fed in a Mulberry tree until they got flushed by a COMMON CUCKOO flying past, but luckily they came back.
It was then back to the hotel for a shower before meeting for our evening meal which was once again of epic proportions!
Tuesday 22nd May 2018
In the early hours of the morning, a EUROPEAN SCOP’S OWL called from the large Oriental Plane tree in the hotel garden and we were serenaded as we awoke with songs of COMMON NIGHTINGALE, LESSER WHITETHROAT and CIRL BUNTING.
After breakfast we headed up through the village and spent time walking through the woodlands. It was pretty quiet with EUROPEAN ROBIN, COMMON CHAFFINCH and GREY WAGTAIL on the stream.
We then drove towards Bulgaria, noting a small flock of ROSY STARLINGS on the way and once through the border crossing, we headed up into the hills.
Vast numbers of NETTLE-TREE BUTTERFLIES were seen once again in the hot sunshine, plus LARGE TORTOISESHELLS and HUMMINGBIRD HAWK-MOTHS.
The woodland was again quiet but with some patience and time we winkled out SHORT-TOED TREECREEPER, EURASIAN NUTHATCH and MARSH TIT.
We wandered down and in the open clearings and spotted an EASTERN FESTOON, but with the warm sunshine it wasn’t going to settle easily, so we drove further up the mountain and parked up.
The walk up through the woodland was pretty steep but we reached a level area where more MARSH TITS were seen and COMMON CHIFFCHAFF was heard. In the sun SPECKLED WOOD and GREEN HAIRSTREAK BUTTERFLIES were added to our lists and a BLACK WOODPECKER was heard drumming in the distance.
Our return journey down the hill was brightened by a brief sighting of two WHITE-BACKED WOODPECKERS but they quickly moved through, vanishing from sight.
Back at the parking area we had lunch outside a small hotel which went down well after all the strenuous exercise and we then drove to a large area of limestone hills in search of more targets.
Once again the track up through the hills was rather steep but eventually we had good views of two BLUE ROCK THRUSHES and EURASIAN CRAG MARTINS zoomed overhead. Some decided not to carry on and were rewarded with brief views of a juvenile ROCK SPARROW in a tree. We were all delighted though to find a male WESTERN ROCK NUTHATCH calling and flitting around the trees and rock face.
Once safely back down we drove to an area where a short walk produced good views of a singing male CALANDRA LARK as it sat on a post, with BLACK-HEADED BUNTINGS, COMMON NIGHTINGALE, EASTERN OLIVACEOUS WARBLER and CORN BUNTINGS all singing around us.
Time was getting on and we headed back via the border crossing into Greece to arrive back at the hotel a little later than planned.
Dimitris and his family had put on a huge barbecue for us and we all sat outside enjoying a fantastic evening of good food and company. Whilst sitting there a EUROPEAN NIGHTJAR flew past us, caught a moth and disappeared into the darkness, a real magical moment!
After completing the bird-list we retired to our rooms, with some of us starting to pack ready for an early start the following day.
Wednesday 24th May 2018
Breakfast was earlier as we had to head straight to Thessaloniki for our lunchtime flight, so after loading up the van, we said our goodbyes to the hotel staff who had looked after us so well during our stay and we began the journey south.
The journey down to Thessaloniki was pretty straight forward with a few EUROPEAN TURTLE DOVES, EUROPEAN ROLLERS, COMMON BUZZARD and a lone ELEONORA’S FALCON being the birds of note.
Dobry dropped us off at the airport and here we had stunning views of PALLID SWIFTS as they flew in and out of the terminal buildings. We checked in straight away, headed through security and to the departure gate where we spent time relaxing.
We arrived at London Gatwick just after our scheduled arrival and once we had reclaimed our bags, said our goodbyes after what had been a brilliant trip, with a rich variety of wildlife highlights and all enjoyed with a super group!