Monthly Archives: March 2018

6th March 2018 – Winter Coast & Forest #1

Day 1 of two days of Private Tours today. It was mostly cloudy, with some brighter intervals, at least until late in the day when it cleared to blue sky and low sunshine. Another very pleasant day to be out, particularly after all the snow last week.

With lots of gulls reported along the NE coast yesterday, we decided to head over to Sheringham first thing. The storms last week washed up large quantities of sealife onto the beaches – fish, starfish, urchins, etc – and the gulls have been gathering in their hundreds to feed on the bounty, bringing a few of their scarcer cousins with them. We particularly hoped to catch up with one of the two Iceland Gulls here this morning.

As we walked down to the prom, we could immediately see lots of gulls on the sea just offshore. The tide was in, but rather than feeding on the fish washed up on the beach, the birds were busy picking food from the surface. We looked through them as we made our way east along the front – plenty of Black-headed, Common, Herring and Great Black-backed Gulls. A Rock Pipit flew in and landed on the concrete below us.

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Gulls – there were hundreds feeding on the sea off Sheringham this morning

A quick stop to scan the rocky sea defenses, just below the prom, revealed a Purple Sandpiper with all the Turnstones. It was just below the top of some steps, so we walked over for a closer look. Two more Purple Sandpipers were roosting here too, partly hidden on the back edge of one of the large blocks. We had a great view of the three of them here – smart birds, with their yellow-orange legs and bill base, more subtle shades of grey than really purple!

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Purple Sandpiper – one of three along the prom this morning

The other two Purple Sandpipers did wake up when a large wave crashed in beneath them, but quickly went back to sleep. The original bird continued feeding, clambering around the faces of the blocks. It then flew down to a small shingle beach where it started to pick around in the detritus washed up here, finding a worm to its liking, before flying back up onto the blocks again.

Continuing on east to the end of the prom, we couldn’t find any other gulls of note among the throng – there was no sign of the Iceland Gull which had been here yesterday. We did spot a couple of Fulmars and a distant Red-throated Diver flying past offshore. We decided to head back and try our luck further along the coast, but at that point we had a message to way that there was no sign of any of yesterday’s gulls at Cromer either.

A change of plan was in order, so we turned round and headed west. Our next stop was at Salthouse. As we got out of the car on Beach Road, a scan of the wet grazing marshes revealed several Wigeon and Teal hiding in the pools and three Ringed Plovers out on the mud. Walking out towards Gramborough Hill, several Meadow Pipits flew up from the grass calling. A Linnet landed on the fence in front of us. Three Dunlin were feeding on the pool beside the path, along with two more Ringed Plovers and a Redshank.

Another pipit flew up from the back of the pool, with shriller call and not repeated like the Meadow Pipits. It was a Rock Pipit. It landed on the shingle at the back of the pool and we could get a closer look at it. When it turned in the light, it was possible to make out a pinkish-apricot wash behind the streaks on the breast. The Rock Pipits here are winter visitors from Scandinavia, of the race littoralis, and they can get very pink below in spring, leading to much potential confusion with Water Pipit.

As we rounded Gramborough Hill, we could see several small birds picking around the grassy patches on the remains of the shingle ridge just beyond. These were the Snow Buntings we had come here to see. They are very well camouflaged against the stones, but watching carefully, we could see that there were actually at least 30 of them here.

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Snow Buntings – some of the 30 still on the shingle ridge today

With a bit of care and patience, we managed to slowly edge ourselves into a position just below the grass where the Snow Buntings were feeding. They came down the ridge back towards us, giving us great close views. We could see they were a mixture of darker brown birds and paler white/grey/orange ones, the former from Iceland and the latter Scandinavian birds.

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Snow Bunting – a young male of the Scandinavian race

After enjoying the Snow Buntings for a while, we backed away carefully and left them to feed in peace. We planned to head for Holkham next, but on the way was drove round via the beach road at Cley. There were just a handful of Brent Geese here today, on Cricket Marsh, and nothing in the Eye Field. No sign of the main flock, which was probably feeding further inland.

We turned inland and headed up towards Wighton. A quick stop on the way produced a Great Spotted Woodpecker drumming in the trees. There had been a Great Grey Shrike seen just west of Wighton a week ago, before the snow, so we thought we might have a quick look in passing to see if it was still in the area. Perhaps not surprisingly, there was no sign of it – in previous years, it has appeared to roam over a vast area.

We had stopped by a small farm reservoir. There were lots of Greylag Geese and Shelducks around the top of the bank, a few small gulls were flying in to bathe and a couple of Tufted Ducks appeared, diving out on the water. Then we noticed another duck right in the far corner. It was face on to us and fast asleep with its head tucked in. Like this, it could easily have been overlooked as another Tufted Duck, but we just caught a flash of what looked like grey on its shoulder. Reaching for the scope, we could confirm it was actually a Scaup.

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Scaup – a 1w drake, asleep on a farm reservoir

There have been a few Scaup seen along the coast in the last few days, so this one had possibly sought shelter from the weather on this small reservoir. It bobbed along the back edge of the water and turned sideways so we could see its grey back properly, very different from the black back of the Tufted Ducks. It appeared to be a young drake, still with some darker brown feathers in the flanks and mantle.

Dropping down to the coast at Holkham, there were various ducks and geese out on the marshes as we made our way up Lady Anne’s Drive. A pair of Egyptian Geese were out in the field just inside the gate. Further up, several Teal and Shoveler were feeding on the pools. A big flock of Wigeon was out in the grass at the north end, in front of where we parked.

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Wigeon – a large flock was feeding by Lady Anne’s Drive

It was time for lunch, so we made good use of the picnic tables here. While we were eating, we heard a call high above and looked up to see a Marsh Harrier displaying way up the sky. We watched as it tumbled and twisted, calling periodically. There were lots of other raptors here too. A Common Buzzard was also displaying over the edge of the pines and a Red Kite drifted in over the trees and across the grazing marshes. At one point, they were all in the air circling together!

A lone Pink-footed Goose was sitting down in the grass not far from the path, which meant that we could get a really close look at it. When it got up and started feeding, we could see it was not holding its left wing properly. Possibly it had been shot and injured, and had now recovered sufficiently to get around but unable to join the rest of the flocks on their way back to Iceland.

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Pink-footed Goose – an injured bird, feeding by Lady Anne’s Drive

A single Brent Goose the other side of Lady Anne’s Drive was similarly very tame, but showed no sign of any obvious injuries to explain why it was on its own here.

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Brent Goose – also on its own right by Lady Anne’s Drive

After lunch, we made our way out through the pines and down onto the saltmarsh. As we walked east another five Rock Pipits were feeding in the vegetation on the edge of the path. A party of six Skylarks were incredibly well camouflaged against the browns of the saltmarsh plants.

The Shorelarks were not in their favoured spot today, so we continued on a little further and quickly located them on the edge of the dunes. We walked over for a closer look. They were initially feeding on the high tide line, picking at the line of dead vegetation looking for seeds, but then they ran up into the dunes and started to poke around in the marram grass.

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Shorelark – one of the 9 which were still on the beach at Holkham today

We edged our way a little closer and had great views of the Shorelarks as they emerged from the grass and stood preening on the edge of the dune. We could see their yellow faces and black masks and collars, and we could even make out the small black horns on one or two of them. Then they ran down onto the beach and started to feed along the high tide line again.

Eventually, we had to tear ourselves away from enjoying watching the Shorelarks. As we walked back towards the pines, we had a quick look out towards the sea through the gap in the dunes. A single Great Crested Grebe was diving offshore. Back at the car, a scan of the grazing marshes again revealed a Common Snipe tucked down on the edge of one of the pools.

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Common Snipe – out on the grazing marshes by Lady Anne’s Drive

There were several options for the rest of the afternoon, but with a report of one of the Iceland Gulls seen flying past Cromer again, we decided to head back for another look. On our way back east, we noticed a white shape on a gatepost beside the road as we passed, a Barn Owl. After struggling to hunt in the snow, they have been hungry since and have been spending much more time out in daylight hours. We turned round and tried to sneak up on it in the car, but with another car coming past the other way, it flew off over the field as we approached.

When we arrived at Cromer, there were surprisingly few gulls on the beach. With the tide out, we had assumed that lots of birds would come in to feed on all the storm debris again. We spoke to one of the people who had seen the Iceland Gull fly past earlier, but there had been no further sign of it.

We decided to try our luck back along the coast at West Runton instead. The clouds had cleared now and the sun was out, bathing the beach in glorious late afternoon light. There were lots more gulls here, so we set about scanning through them. We hadn’t gone too far, when we spotted a smart adult Mediterranean Gull.

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Mediterranean Gull – one of three on the beach at West Runton today

The Mediterranean Gull‘s bright red bill and white wing-tips particularly stood out, relative to all the commoner Black-headed Gulls. It was still mostly in winter plumage, with a black bandit mask behind the eye and peppering of dark in the rear crown.

There were lots of waders around the rock pools down on the beach too. Several Grey Plover, Knot, Redshanks and Dunlin, feeding in between the gulls. Another Purple Sandpiper was harder to see among the rocks. A flock of Sanderling appeared, running around on the sand over towards the water’s edge.

We couldn’t find any sign of the Iceland Gull here, but we did manage to pick out a 2nd winter (3rd calendar year) Caspian Gull among the Herring Gulls. It stood out immediately with its long legs and long neck, standing tall. It also had a distinctive long, pointed face with a long bill, exaggerated by its white head and small dark eye. Unfortunately, we were just admiring it when a dogwalker came around the end of the groyne and flushed all the gulls from that part of the beach.

The school group which had been out on the beach had just left, so a lot of the smaller gulls flew in to feed on the sand just beyond the access ramp. In with all the Black-headed Gulls and Common Gulls, we found another two more Mediterranean Gulls. These had much more black on the head that the one we had seen earlier, meaning there were at least three different individuals here this afternoon.

It was lovely out on the beach in the late sunshine, but the owner of the car park came down to tell us that it was about to be locked up, so it meant we had to walk back up to the top of the cliffs to get the car out. It had been a great day, but it was now time to head for home anyway.

5th March 2018 – Thaw in the Brecks

A Private Tour today, down in the Brecks. After the snow and cold weather over the last week, warmer temperatures and rain overnight brought a very welcome rapid thaw. It was then a lovely day today – partly cloudy with some nice sunny intervals and the temperature up to 9-10C!

Our main target for the morning was Goshawk. We headed over via a favoured spot first thing, but it was still rather cool and cloudy. A quick stop and scan revealed a Sparrowhawk flying past over the trees, but otherwise there was very little raptor activity yet. So we decided to head off and look for Woodlarks instead first.

By the time we got there, the sun was already starting to break through the clouds. We parked again at the head of a ride and walked into the start of the forest. At the first clearing, we could hear a Woodlark calling. We looked across into the top of one of the tall trees which had been left out in the middle and there were two Woodlarks and a Yellowhammer. We had a quick look in the scope – a good start, but they were a little distant and we were looking into the light.

Another Woodlark was singing further along the ride, so we walked on to the next clearing. A couple more Yellowhammers landed high in a tree by the path as we made our way over there. Here we found the Woodlark in full song flight, fluttering high over our heads, flying round over its territory. It is a wonderful sound, despite the song having a somewhat mournful quality to it, a Woodlark singing over a forest clearing, a real sign of early spring.

As we walked round the edge of the clearing, another Woodlark flew up from the grass out in the middle and landed in a small oak tree by the path, calling. We had a good look at it, but as we tried to get round onto the other side where the light was better, it flew across and landed down in the grass a short distance away.

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Woodlark – flew up and landed in a small oak tree

It was non-stop Woodlark action now. With some warmth in the air, they were making up for lost time, back in full spring-mode after the cold spell over the last few days. We decided to walk along and try to see the one which had just landed in the grass, but on our way we were distracted by the songflighting Woodlark doing another circuit above us.

The other Woodlark then flew up from the ground ahead of us, followed closely by a second bird. We watched as they flew across and landed on the edge of the clearing. By moving slowly and quietly, we were able to follow them and had fantastic views of them on the ground.

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Woodlark – we had great views of one pair on the ground

The Woodlarks were feeding quietly, in and out of the replanted furrows. The female was busy feeding while the male would periodically stop to sing quietly.

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Woodlark – the female was busy feeding around the furrows

Eventually, we had to tear ourselves away and left the Woodlarks feeding in peace. The sun was out now and we had a date with Goshawks!

Back where we had looked earlier, it was immediately apparent that raptor activity had increased significantly. There were already several Common Buzzards up in the sky now. Scanning carefully, we picked up our first Goshawk of the day, an adult, grey above and white below. It was rather distant and simply circled up, gradually gaining height into the patches of cloud before drifting off.

When the Goshawk disappeared, we had a bit of wait before we saw what was possibly the same bird circling again. Possibly they were waiting for enough thermal activity in the air because there was then a flurry of action. A young male appeared, catching orange below as it turned, and it started displaying, flying over the trees with deep and slow wingbeats. That prompted one of the adults to respond, and we even had a burst of roller-coaster display, swooping down before turning sharply back up again.

While we were back watching the juvenile Goshawk again, the next thing we knew two adults appeared together. They were both displaying and at one point seemed to have a coming together, grappling talons, chasing each other down into the trees. A fourth Goshawk, another adult, then circled up away to our right, much closer this time, giving us a great view of it through the scope.

As well as the Goshawks, there were lots of Common Buzzards up now. A Red Kite drifted across over the trees and a Kestrel circled up too. We could hear another Woodlark singing here, off in the distance.

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Common Buzzard – there was lots of raptor activity once the air warmed up

Eventually, we decided to move on. There are small numbers of Willow Tits still clinging on in the forest around here and some feeding stations have been set up for them. We headed over to one site to see if we could find them. As we walked up the ride, there were lots of tits in the trees, Blue, Great and Marsh Tits, but not the one we had come to see.

There were a few people gathered staring at a bird table in the edge of the trees. A steady stream of tits, mainly Coal Tits, were flying in and grabbing a sunflower seed before taking it back into the trees to eat. A Marsh Tit did the same, as did a Nuthatch. It appeared there had been no sign of the Willow Tits.

We hadn’t been standing there very long before we heard a distinctive song coming from deep in the trees. A Willow Tit! It seemed like none of the others there recognised it, so it was hard to tell if it had been singing before we arrived. We walked a little further up the ride, in the direction of the song, which seemed to be coming from behind a second bird table in amongst the pine trees. When the Willow Tit went quiet again, we stopped to see if it was coming in to feed here, but all we could see was another Nuthatch and a couple more Coal Tits.

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Nuthatch – making regular visits to the feeding tables

When the Willow Tit started singing again a couple of minutes later, it had crossed the ride and was now in the trees behind us. It was moving very quickly through the trees, so we followed the song. It was quite high up in the dense pines and impossible to see anything beyond a shape moving when it flew, but it appeared to be working its way back towards the ride. Then it shot out, over our heads and back across the ride and disappeared into the trees again.

At least we had heard the Willow Tit singing, and had the briefest glimpse of it, before it now went quiet again. We decided to move on. On our way back to the car, a Goldcrest was singing in the trees and another Marsh Tit was much more obliging than its cousin.

The middle of the day is not the best time to look for woodpeckers, but we decided to give it a shot and have a walk along the river to see if we could find one of the Lesser Spotted Woodpeckers. After the recent cold weather, we thought they might be extra active today, but it was rather quiet on the way out. A pair of Mute Swans and a couple of Little Grebes were out on the water. We could hear a Woodlark singing in the distance, and a Reed Bunting calling in the reeds.

As we got to the poplars, a small flock of Redwing flew up from the wet ground beneath into the trees, where they perched waiting for us to move on. A Marsh Tit was singing and a Nuthatch climbed down a tree trunk.

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Redwing – feeding below the poplars along the riverbank

We had brought our lunch with us, so we sat on a couple of logs which had been cut from one of the recently fallen trees. It was a lovely place to stop and eat, listening to the sound of the water flowing past. At first, there was not much else to hear but all of a sudden there was a burst of activity. The number of tits singing seemed to increase and then a Lesser Spotted Woodpecker called. It was deep in the trees on the other side of the river, but at least we now knew where it was.

We hoped that might be the start. A Green Woodpecker laughed at us from somewhere downstream. We waited and then a Great Spotted Woodpecker called too, but its smaller cousin had gone quiet. After we finished our lunch, we walked a little further along the riverbank, but we didn’t hear it again, so we made our way back to the car

Lynford Arboretum was our final destination for the afternoon. As we made our way in along the path, we stopped by the gate overlooking the feeders in the trees. There were plenty of tits coming to feed on the fat balls in the big cage feeder. Lots of Chaffinches were down in the leaf litter when we arrived, but they were very nervous and kept getting spooked – by a Woodpigeon flying over or two Rabbits chasing each other through the trees.

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Tits – coming to feed on the fatballs

Continuing on down to the bridge, there was lots of seed mix spread out on the pillars today, but no sunflower seeds. The Marsh Tits and Nuthatches which are usually here were conspicuous by their absence today, possibly not appreciating the food on offer. The other tits were more interested in the feeders – a steady stream of Great Tits, Blue Tits, Coal Tits and Long-tailed Tits. Several Reed Buntings did seem to be enjoying the selection though.

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Great Tit – coming down to the food at the bridge

As we turned onto the path which runs alongside the lake, several birds flew up from the wet meadow beyond the fence. In amongst the Redwings, three slightly smaller birds flashed white in the wing and a white tip to the tail as they took off – Hawfinches! They landed again just before the next fence over and started to feed down in the wet grass. We got a smart male Hawfinch in the scope and had a great look at it.

Unfortunately, just at that moment, a particularly loud group of people walked past along the other side of the paddocks and scared all the Redwings again. There was a large flock of them still here today, at least 60 birds. The Hawfinches flew up with them and disappeared into the hornbeams out in the middle.

We continued on a little further along the path and could see one of the Hawfinches feeding now, down on the ground under the trees. There were lots of other finches feeding there too – several Bramblings in with the Chaffinches and Greenfinches. However, the Hawfinches were very flighty and the next time we saw them they disappeared down below one of the other trees, further back in the paddocks, where we couldn’t see them.

Turning our attention to the lake instead, a large flock of Siskins was feeding in the alders, and flying round calling. The water was still mostly frozen, but a single Gadwall feeding in a patch of open water round one of the islands was an addition to the day’s list.

We decided to try our luck round on the other side of the paddocks and as we stopped to look around the first hornbeam out in the middle, we heard a Hawfinch calling from the next tree over. We hurried along to a gap in the hedge and had great views of it perched in the hornbeam calling. We could see its huge cherry stone-crushing bill and black mask and bib.

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Hawfinch – perched up in one of the hornbeams, calling

Then the Hawfinch dropped back into the trees and disappeared. It was that time of the day, when the finches are starting to go to roost. The other birds had also disappeared from under the trees, so we decided to call it a day and head for home ourselves.

22nd-26th Feb 2018 – Northern Greece in Winter

Not a tour, but with a few days off I took advantage and headed over to Lake Kerkini in Northern Greece for a few days, with a couple of things in mind – photographing pelicans and checking out some new sites ahead of our group tour there at the end of April. If this blog post inspires you to consider a visit, you would be very welcome to join us on one of our future tours there!

Unfortunately, the weather on this trip was not ideal. The first two days were dry, but it rained on day 3 and I woke on day 4 to deep snow and the village cut off, leading to not a little panic about how to get back home that evening! This snow was particularly unseasonal, due to the ‘Beast from the East’ which has affected much of Europe. Luckily, I had managed to get a lot achieved in the first two/three days and, after the snow plough came through, I abandoned plans for the fourth day and made a bid for the airport. After getting stuck twice in the snow and 120km in detours for closed roads, thankfully I made it safely.

Lake Kerkini was only created in 1932, through damming of the Strimonas river, both to provide irrigation for the Serres plain and to hold back water to prevent flooding downstream as snow in the mountains melts in spring. It quickly became one of the most important sites for wildlife in Greece.

Lake Kerkini is particularly well known for its pelicans. It had already established itself as the most important wintering site in Europe for Dalmatian Pelicans, before the provision of nesting platforms and islands allowed them to start breeding here from 2003. White Pelicans have now started to colonise too.

January and February are the best months to photograph the Dalmatian Pelicans. The birds are already in their breeding finery and they are more approachable at this time of year. Once they start breeding, they become much shyer and also are very vulnerable to disturbance.

My mission to photograph the pelicans was a great success. You can see some photos of Dalmatian Pelicans below, followed by a few of the other species I was able to catch up with on my brief visit.

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Dalmatian Pelican – a good reason for a visit here in winter

There were a few White Pelicans here too. Most of these head off to Africa for the winter, but a few juveniles linger and the first adults were already starting to return. The adults look stunning at this time of year – not white, but pink. Amazing birds!

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White Pelican – rather more pink than white!

Lake Kerkini is also an internationally important site for other waterbirds. Pygmy Cormorants can be seen quite commonly around the edges of the lake, along with their larger cousins.

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Pygmy Cormorant – common around the lake

Lesser White-fronted Geese are globally threatened and the Scandinavian population has suffered particularly large declines due to over hunting and habitat change. From over 10,000 birds in 1900, only around 30 breeding pairs now remain. These birds winter in Greece, historically passing through Lake Kerkini in late autumn or early winter on their way to the Evros Delta.

In recent years, a number of the Lesser White-fronted Geese have stayed on, remaining around the lake all winter. I was fortunate to catch up with 18 of the 28 currently at Lake Kerkini on one afternoon. They were noticeably smaller than the commoner Russian White-fronted Geese which also winter here, with a distinctive faster feeding action.

The area around the lake is also very good for birds. Birds of prey are frequently encountered and one of the most distinctive in winter are the (Greater) Spotted Eagles. I saw 5-6 of these majestic birds daily when I visited the western shore of the lake. A single adult White-tailed Eagle was too distant for photographs.

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Spotted Eagle – the commonest eagle in winter, easily found around the lake

The surrounding area is also good for woodpeckers. I saw six different species even on my very brief visit, including Black Woodpecker, Syrian Woodpecker, Middle Spotted Woodpecker and Grey-headed Woodpecker.

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Black Woodpecker – one of six species of woodpecker seen

The surprise of the trip was a stunning adult Pallas’s Gull which I found on the lake in the rain on my third day. Also known historically as Great Black-headed Gull, this is probably a better name for this distinctive species, being slightly larger than the accompany Caspian and Yellow-legged Gulls with a bold black hood in summer. Although increasing in regularity, it is still a rare bird in Greece with only just over 30 records.

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Pallas’s Gull – a smart adult, showing why it was called Great Black-headed Gull

Great Grey Shrike is a rare winter visitor in northern Greece, but they can sometimes be found at Kerkini. One was frequenting the marshes along the eastern side of the lake while I was there. I was immediately struck by the amount of white in the wing and tail of this bird, noticeably more than in the birds we normally see in the UK in winter. The white in the base of the primaries was very extensive and, in flight, could be seen to extend across the bases of the secondaries.

The Great Grey Shrikes wintering here originate from further east than the birds which most commonly turn up in the UK. They are assumed to be of the race homeyeri or intergrades, rather than the nominate excubitor which we normally encounter. It was certainly an educational bird to spend time with.

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Great Grey Shrike – of the subspecies homeyeri

Particularly given the weather and the resulting loss of one day of my trip, I did not get as much of an opportunity to explore further afield as I had hoped on this occasion. I did visit some of the surrounding sites lower down, but was unable to get up into the mountains. Even so, I managed to see around 95 different species in 3 days, including some other eastern Mediterranean specialities like Western Rock Nuthatch and Sombre Tit.

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Western Rock Nuthatch – can be found in the surrounding area

Despite the weather on the last couple of days, it was a very enjoyable and successful short trip. I can heartily recommend it as a destination, either in winter or spring. If you would like to join us on one of our future trips, please do not hesitate to get in contact.