Tag Archives: Bee-eater

26th Sept-4th Oct 2019 – Shetland

Not a tour, but I spent a few days up on Shetland enjoying the delights of Autumn migration there. Here are a few highlights:

Isabelline Shrike

Isabelline Shrike – found at Levenwick on 28th Sept

An Isabelline Shrike was found at Levenwick on 28th September. An interesting bird, it was identified initially as probably a Turkestan Shrike, but lacked the strongly defined pale supercilium of that (sub)species. However, it was not a particularly good fit for Daurian Shrike either, being rather too pale below and especially on the throat, with too much contrast between the upperparts and underparts.

A pellet was collected, which hopefully will yield some DNA and might shed some light on this bird’s identity, but even the genetics of this complex group is not simple. Both Turkestan and Daurian Shrike are thought to interbreed with Red-backed Shrike, and possibly with each other, which further complicates the situation.

Eastern Stonechat

Eastern Stonechat – probably a Siberian Stonechat, maurus

An Eastern Stonechat was found the same day at Brake. The Stonechats are similarly complex, now most frequently treated as two species – Siberian and Stejneger’s Stonechats. This one looked a good fit for Siberian Stonechat, but again DNA may be required to confirm its identity (apparently someone did manage to acquire a sample).

Semipalmated Sandpiper

Semipalmated Sandpiper – on the beach at Grutness

It was a busy day on 28th, with a Semipalmated Sandpiper found on the beach at Grutness. Coming from the opposite direction to the shrike and stonechat, it had perhaps come over from North America previously and just relocated to the beach. It remained for several days, commuting between Grutness and Pool of Virkie.

Little Bunting

Little Bunting – Sumburgh Head, also on 28th

There were several Little Buntings around throughout my visit, and I managed to catch up with a couple of them. One around the lighthouse buildings at Sumburgh Head also on 28th was very confiding.

Olive-backed Pipit

Olive-backed Pipit – found at Cunningsburgh later on 28th

Likewise, there were several Olive-backed Pipits found during my stay on the islands, but the only one I managed to catch up with rounded off my day on 28th, when we watched it creeping through the grass between the irises at Cunningsburgh.

Red-breasted Flycatcher

Red-breasted Flycatcher – this one at Quendale on 27th

Similarly, there were several Red-breasted Flycatchers found throughout my stay and I managed to run into several of them.

 

Red-backed Shrike

Red-backed Shrike – a juvenile on 2nd Oct

A juvenile Red-backed Shrike on 2nd October was a lot less controversial than the Isabelline Shrike. One of two which turned up later on in the week, this one near Gott.

Barred Warbler

Barred Warbler – in the middle of Lerwick

Several Barred Warblers turned up later in the week too. I stopped off to see one in the middle of Lerwick on a shopping trip on the afternoon of 3rd, where it was gleaning insects from the tops of some sycamores around the bowling green / tennis courts.

Greenish Warbler

Greenish Warbler – minus its tail

A Greenish Warbler at Levenwick on 27th was one of two during the week, a distinctive bird lacking a tail.

Yellow-browed Warbler

Yellow-browed Warbler – everywhere at the start of the week

There were Yellow-browed Warblers everywhere at the start of the week – on 27th there seemed to be at least one in just about every bush. However, after a clear night, numbers thinned out considerably after 28th, but they were still seen almost daily. The commonest warbler.

Eastern Lesser Whitethroat

Eastern Lesser Whitethroat – presumably of the race blythi

Several Lesser Whitethroats seen all appeared to be birds of one of the eastern races, most likely blythi. It was a nice opportunity to get a better look at several of these interesting birds.

Bee-eater

Bee-eater – a long way north

 

A Bee-eater at Ollaberry was a nice distraction late on 29th.

Orcas

Orcas – a pod of Killer Whales in Clift Sound off Wester Quarff

But the highlight of my trip was not a bird. A pod of Orcas (Killer Whales) was sighted off St Ninian’s Isle and then Maywick heading north on the morning of 2nd. There was nowhere to look for them until Wester Quarff, much further north, so I positioned myself there, not knowing if they would come all the way up Clift Sound. It was a long wait, but eventually they appeared in the distance.

This was the so-called 027 pod of Orcas, eight in total. They took their time to get to us – by now, quite a crowd had gathered – seemingly stopping having made a kill successfully a number of times. Eventually they passed only 150-200m offshore. Amazing!

 

Aug 2018 – Romania: Birds & Bears, Part 1

Romania has to be one of the most interesting birdwatching destinations in Europe. It boasts a great variety of different habitats including the Danube Delta, the Black Sea coastal lagoons and low Macin mountains of the Dobrogea region, rising up to the lofty Carpathian mountains which dominate the north of the country.

The wildlife is pretty impressive too – with a great diversity of birds, some of which are at the westernmost point of their range here. Amongst the larger mammals, Romania boasts about 50% of Europe’s Brown Bears (outside of Russia) and a significant proportion of its Wolves. We spent 12 days in Romania in the middle of August this year, not the best time of year to visit but still we managed to see 196 species of bird, and plenty of Brown Bears!

This was not a tour – but is a prelude to one. In early June 2019 I will be leading a group on an 8-day tour to Romania. We will visit the Danube Delta and Dobrogea regions, the first two areas which we visited on this trip (but not the Carpathians, which was the third part of our trip). If you like the sound of what you read in the first two parts of this blog and would like to join us, please contact me for more details.

The Romania tour in 2019, along with all our other international tours, is organised together with our friends at Oriole Birding. You can see more details here.

10th-12th August – The Dobrogea

After a travel day on 9th, we spent the first three days of our trip exploring the Dobrogea region, south of the Danube.

Paddyfield Warbler was one of our main target species here. It is at the western extreme of its range in Romania, but can be found in reedbeds around the saline lagoons along the Black Sea coast. We had thought we might struggle to find them, given the time of year, but we shouldn’t have worried. At the first site we tried we had amazing views of at least 10 birds, feeding in low vegetation alongside the track down to the coast.

Paddyfield Warbler

Paddyfield Warbler – showed unbelievably well for a typically skulking warbler!

Paddyfield Warblers can be very shy. They are a very rare visitor to the UK and normally don’t show very well when they are found here. So this was an unbelievable opportunity to spend some time watching them at close quarters.

Pallas’s Gull (also known as Great Black-headed Gull) was another bird we particularly wanted to see here. They proved hard to find at first – there was no sign of any on the lagoons we tried first. Then on our last day in the Dobrogea, driving down towards the coast, we spotted two with about a dozen Caspian Gulls loafing in a ploughed field.

Two Pallas’s Gulls was good enough, but it didn’t prepare us for what we found when we got down to the lagoons. There were over 160 Pallas’s Gulls here on the island in the middle! This lagoon is often dry at this time of year, but after heavy rains in July it was full of water, which may explain why they were here.

Pallas's Gulls

Pallas’s Gulls – just a few of the 160+ on the one lagoon

The Pallas’s Gulls were of a variety of different ages, including juveniles and moulting adults, most of which were already in the process of losing their black hoods. Birds were coming and going all the time, and we had some great close flybys.

Pallas's Gull

Pallas’s Gull – a moulting adult which has largely lost its black hood

There were also Caspian and Yellow-legged Gulls around the various lagoons in the Dobrogea, as well as good numbers of Little Gulls. However, one of the other sights which will linger long in the memory is a single field just inland which had just been cultivated and held several thousands of Mediterranean Gulls and almost no other gulls with them!

There were lots of terns around the lagoons with the gulls too. In particular, we enjoyed great views of Caspian Terns and Gull-billed Terns. We also found one or two Black Terns and White-winged Black Terns in with the larger numbers of Common and Little Terns.

Caspian Tern

Caspian Tern – we saw good numbers of this species in Romania

The waders on the lagoons were pretty special too. In mid August, many species were already on their way back south from breeding areas further north. The wader highlight was finding at least 15 Broad-billed Sandpipers and over 200 Marsh Sandpipers around the same lagoon where the Pallas’s Gulls were. Quite a place!

This is also a great place to catch up with Collared Pratincoles, which breed around the lagoons here. We enjoyed fantastic close-up views of several adults and juveniles around the drier margins of the lagoons.

Collared Pratincole 1

Collared Pratincole – an adult

Collared Pratincole 2

Collared Pratincole – a juvenile

We also saw smaller numbers of Temminck’s Stints, Little Stints, Curlew Sandpipers and Spotted Redshanks, as well as lots of Wood Sandpipers, around the various lagoons down on the coast. In total, including the species which breed here too, we saw 26 species of waders on the trip.

The Danube Delta gave us better opportunities for close views of pelicans, but we saw our first White and Dalmatian Pelicans down on the Black Sea coast, including some impressive flocks of White Pelicans. With the breeding season over, they were presumably dispersing out of the Delta. It was a fantastic sight, watching them thermalling, trying to gain height.

White Pelicans

White Pelicans – a flock circling, trying to find a thermal to gain height

The other key species to see in the Dobrogea is Pied Wheatear which, like the Paddyfield Warbler, is at the very westernmost part of its range here. We saw our first Pied Wheatear in the Macin Mountains, while looking for Rock Thrush. A smart male, it flew right past us from somewhere down below, but disappeared higher up the slope without stopping. The Rock Thrushes had already finished breeding and dispersed, but we eventually found one, a female, right on the top of the ridge. We also had good views of Sombre Tits here.

We saw many more Pied Wheatears in the Dobrogea gorges. They appeared to have had a successful breeding season, as the birds we found were all juveniles.

Pied Wheatear

Pied Wheatear – a young male, in the Dobrogea gorges

In contrast, Isabelline Wheatear is a much more widespread bird and one which we encountered quite regularly on the Dobrogea plain, typically in areas of steppe grassland or in farmland. We saw lots of Northern Wheatears too, both high up in the Macin Mountains and down on the plains.

Isabelline Wheatear

Isabelline Wheatear – a regularly encountered bird out on the plains

One of the most memorable moments of these first three days was eating our lunch in the middle of a colony of Red-footed Falcons! These birds breed in a small poplar wood, which has a track running through it. The juveniles had already fledged but were still hanging around the colony, mostly perching in the treetops or chasing round between the branches after the adults, begging to be fed.

It was great to be able to spend some time watching them. Several of the adult Red-footed Falcons were perched in the trees too, males and females.

Red-footed Falcon 1

Red-footed Falcon – an adult male perched up in the trees

Red-footed Falcon 2

Red-footed Falcon – one of the juveniles, flying round over the trees

We saw several other Red-footed Falcons out hunting as we drove around the Dobrogea. We also encountered a good selection of other raptors on our travels, including White-tailed, Booted and Lesser Spotted Eagles, Levant Sparrowhawk, Marsh and Montagu’s Harriers, Long-legged and Steppe/Common Buzzards and several Honey Buzzards.

The forested areas within the Dobrogea also hold some interesting species. Red-breasted Flycatchers breed here and we visited one area where we found a pair with fledged juveniles in the trees. Hawfinches are common here too. Romania is a great place to see woodpeckers, and on our first morning in the Dobrogea we saw or heard 7 different species, including great views of several Middle Spotted Woodpeckers.

Middle Spotted Woodpecker

Middle Spotted Woodpecker – we had great views of several in the Dobrogea

Syrian Woodpecker is probably the most common species here, and is not limited to the forests. We encountered them in many places, including on concrete telegraph posts in the villages! There are Great Spotted Woodpeckers here too, which are very similar, but Syrian is easy to pick up on its subtly different call with a bit of practice and when seen well by the lack of a black bar across the top of the neck.

Syrian Woodpecker

Syrian Woodpecker – probably the commonest woodpecker species here

The wider countryside of the Dobrogea is mostly comprised of vast open areas of farmland, interspersed with smaller open areas of steppe-like grazing land. Hedges were taken out and field sizes increased during the agricultural collectivisation of the Ceaucescu era.

Despite the lack of hedges, the one thing that immediately strikes you as you drive around the region is the abundance of shrikes. Red-backed Shrikes are simply abundant – we rarely drove far along a country road without seeing one or more Red-backed Shrikes perched on the roadside wires or any bush or other convenient vantage point.

Lesser Grey Shrikes are common too, and we saw good numbers of this species on our travels and enjoyed great views of several from the car. Presumably, the number of shrikes here speaks to an abundance still of insects or small vertebrates in farmland here, something which is sadly lacking in much of western Europe.

Lesser Grey Shrike

Lesser Grey Shrike – still a fairly common sight here

Rollers are still abundant here too, again presumably due to a plentiful supply of insects. They are a common sight on roadside wires, always great birds to see. We eventually got some fantastic close views of them, using the car as a mobile hide.

Roller

Roller – also still a common bird in the countryside

A visit to southern Europe in summer would not be complete without Bee-eaters. We saw lots of these too – another common sight on roadside wires.

Bee-eaters

Bee-eaters – we saw lots on roadside wires on our travels around

As well as birds, we saw a nice selection of other animals. Highlights include the Sousliks (or European Ground Squirrels) which inhabit the grassy steppe areas and Spur-thighed Tortoise. We also saw a nice selection of butterflies, particularly at higher elevations.

Souslik

Souslik – an inhabitant of the grassy steppes

Birding the Dobrogea was a fantastic introduction to Romania. We saw a great selection of birds here over the three days. From there, we headed off to the Danube Delta, which we will cover in the next section of this blog post…

 

29th Apr-5th May 2018 – Northern Greece: Lake Kerkini in Spring

A 7 day International Tour together with our friends from Oriole Birding, we headed off to Northern Greece to visit Lake Kerkini and explore the surrounding area. It was lovely sunny weather, blue skies and light winds, although starting to get a little hot in the middle of the day towards the end of our visit.

SUNDAY 29TH APRIL

It was a very early start at London Gatwick this morning, for the 0555 departure to Thessaloniki in Northern Greece. After a slightly delayed start due to the airline boarding some people onto the plane who were meant to be going to Corfu [!] we eventually set off and enjoyed a swift three hour run down, landing only about fifteen minutes behind schedule. The transit through the airport was typically painless, given its small size, and soon we had collected our hire vans and were making our way north towards the south end of Kerkini Lake where we would meet Stergios our hotel proprietor for an al fresco picnic lunch.

While we ate our way through the spread, we were able to scope our first Dalmatian Pelicans, and watch Common Terns, a flock of Mediterranean Gulls and a flyby Night Heron. A second calendar year Caspian Gull was also noted, a nice ‘snouty’ white-headed example, and we could hear our first Golden Orioles and Eastern Olivaceous Warblers signing thereabouts.

From here, we made our way slowly up the western shore of the lake to Korofoudi, and made our first proper birding spot on the flat coastal plain where normally there is a fair bit of exposed mud on the shallow shelving shoreline. However, the heavy late winter snow had clearly now made its way down from the Belles Mountains, and the water levels were actually very high. Nevertheless, a flock of 26 Wood Sandpipers came up from the shore as we parked, and proceeded to pick their way through the flooded grass at the lake edge – fantastic!

Wood Sandpiper

Wood Sandpiper – one of at least 26 by the lake this afternoon

A tiny patch of reeds held no less than three Great Reed Warblers, croaking away from the very tops of the reed heads in full view. We also enjoyed the many Spanish Sparrows here, with the dapper males collecting the heads of the phragmites and carrying them to a nearby White Stork nest. The storks themselves were down in the roadside meadow foraging, and here we also found a fine male Red-backed Shrike, Corn Bunting and two flyby European Bee-eaters.

Great Reed Warbler

Great Reed Warbler – one of three singing in a tiny patch of reeds

This whole area was just hooching with great birds and it was difficult to know where to look first! Our first Pygmy Cormorant of the trip showed really well, and a cracking adult Eurasian Spoonbill flew in and began feeding right next to the road in a small pool.

Perhaps the best birds seen in this area though, despite them being rather distant, were a pair of Levant Sparrowhawks displaying above the wooded ridge behind us. The incredible mechanical, super-slow wingbeats of the male were quite unlike any other accipiter display, even if the more familiar switch-back routine followed it. We could just about make out the dark wingtips too, but the distinctive shape with a narrow, pointed ‘hand’ were clear to see. Heading north, we had a few more good roadside birds, in particular our first Black-headed Bunting of the trip perched on some roadside wires, but also Woodchat Shrike, Red-rumped Swallow and Black Kite, before reaching our hotel in the foothills just north of the lake.

After a quick check in, we were keen to head straight back into the field to make the most of the fantastic light and warm evening temperatures, and so we made straight for the small harbour at Mandraki. This site really comes into its own late in the day, and we enjoyed another veritable feast of wetland birds here. Squacco Herons stood among the lily pads, part of a list of seven heron species that included many Great White Egrets, single Cattle Egret, a few Night Herons and three smart Purple Herons. The light was so great, and the birds were mainly fairly close – the Squacco Herons especially looked stunning as they flew past us, perfectly reflected in the still water.

We could see the artificial pelican nesting islands in the distance and as well as the many Dalmatian Pelicans, we could easily pick out the salmon pink White Pelicans too! Over the water, among the many Common Terns, two Whiskered Terns were dip feeding and we were greeted with the quite remarkable sight of at least two hundred Great Crested Grebes nesting colonially in the shallows to the west of the harbour – unreal!

Other species noted here included a scoped Common Cuckoo, two Red-rumped Swallows, and a young Goshawk which drifted through mobbed by Hooded Crows. Two drake Garganey and a Black-winged Stilt were also seen distantly out towards the drowned forest, an area we would explore more thoroughly in the coming days from a specially arranged boat trip. Only day one, and already we were getting the feel for why Kerkini is such an awesome birding destination.

MONDAY 30TH APRIL

Our first full day was spent largely around the north-east side of the lake, birding around Vironia and Megalachori and enjoying the feast of waterbirds on offer. But before breakfast, we took a short drive up the hill behind the village to check out a Semi-collared Flycatcher which had been found by Paul and the previous group out here last week.

The bird was still singing in exactly the same spot, and presumably this was in fact a potential breeding location, as the mature plane trees along a stream looked ideal habitat for sure. We soon found the Semi-collared Flycatcher, a fine male [though perhaps a first summer due to its slightly brown flight feathers and restricted white in primary bases], and over the next half hour we played cat and mouse with it in the canopy above. The bird was singing and calling virtually non-stop, but was very mobile and didn’t remain on the same perch for long. Eventually though, everyone had a great view through the scope. Just as we were about to head back for breakfast, we realised there were in fact two males present! A great result and perhaps one for future trips too.

Semi-collared Flycatcher 1

Semi-collared Flycatcher – one of two males we saw here this morning

After breakfast, we set off down the hill towards the main road, stopping at one of our favourite spots for migrants by a water trough just outside the village. This proved to be a brilliant area this morning, with a great variety of migrants and summer breeders noted. Golden Orioles were calling from the Plane trees all around, and eventually we had great scope views of a male. There were Corn Buntings jangling, Turtle Doves purring, and Red-rumped Swallows perched on the wires above.

In the meadows around the drinking trough we found Woodchat Shrike, Common Nightingale, Common Whitethroat and Eastern Olivaceous Warbler [seen well!] and overhead we had a fairly distant Goshawk being seen off by a Hooded Crow. Our second Black-headed Bunting of the trip, another singing male, was perched up on a roadside bush and a couple of European Bee-eaters flew north – we had seen a flock of twenty or so going high north towards the mountains earlier on. Perhaps the best bird here was a cracking Eastern Orphean Warbler which was singing quietly and seemed to be nest building in the bushes in the meadow – it never quite sat fully out in the open, but we managed to piece together some decent views of it.

Black-headed Bunting

Black-headed Bunting – perched up on a roadside bush

Just as we were about to get back into the vehicles, a Tree Pipit dropped in and began walking around in a muddy puddle next to the trough, and a male Cirl Bunting popped up in a roadside bush – just brilliant. As we drove away, a stunning male Red-backed Shrike landed on the fence by the side of the vehicles with a large beetle, so close we could almost reach out and touch it. We hadn’t even got to our first proper birding spot for the morning yet!

Red-backed Shrike 1

Red-backed Shrike – just finishing off its beetle

Vironia tracks was next on the agenda, and we enjoyed walking slowly along beneath the cool shade of the trees. There were lots of insects on the wing, and we had great views of Green-eyed Hawker and Scarce Chaser dragonflies, and as things warmed up a little more, we had a great selection of butterflies including Eastern Festoon, Green Hairstreak and Grizzled Skipper.

Eastern Festoon

Eastern Festoon – one of many butterflies at Vironia

Not to be outdone, the birds performed too, with particularly excellent views of Levant Sparrowhawks, which seemed to be setting up territory close by. After several close but obscured glimpses of them among the trees, we had the male perched in the open feeding on prey, and later had him flying above the fields – very distinctive looking birds.

Other notable sightings here included Syrian Woodpecker, and a fleeting Grey-headed Woodpecker which refused to perch for us. More obliging was a fine Lesser Spotted Eagle sitting on a dead tree, and our first Black Stork drifting in low over the bushes. Common Nightingales were belting out their song all along this stretch, and we even saw one or two of them! Back at the vehicles, Common Cuckoo and Red-backed Shrike were seen – not a bad morning so far.

Coffee and lunch became combined into one stop today, at the gazebo by the River Strimon bridge. This was an excellent location for getting views of the many European Bee-eaters present, with the birds landing on the ground all around us, and sitting on the trees and wires. A Hoopoe tried its best to out-do them, calling in beautiful light from an exposed perch. Sand Martins were also buzzing all around us, and we had some nice fly-bys from Dalmatian Pelican and Pygmy Cormorant.

The afternoon would be spent winding our way slowly along the eastern embankment of Lake Kerkini, birding as we went, and so we started at the pool just beyond Megalachori where we soon found our first Little Bitterns of the trip – a male and female skulking deep in the edge of the reeds. We scanned hard for crakes, but found two families of Coypu instead! As the day began to really warm up, so the raptor activity increased as well – at least three Lesser Spotted Eagles displaying above the mountain ridge, and a group of three Levant Sparrowhawks migrating high and distant.

Back down at ground level, an absolutely superb male Golden Oriole perched in the open for us, signing from the open canopy of a poplar, before chasing the female off down the wooded gulley next to the embankment. We went on to get several more views of them during the afternoon, and of course we could hear them [and the Nightingales!] as an almost constant soundtrack.

Golden Oriole

Golden Oriole – this superb male perched up nicely in the poplars

Moving further south along the bank, we had perhaps our best birding of the day looking out across the north-east corner of the lake – the light was superb, the weather beautiful and the place was stuffed with great birds! We passed a flock of Spoonbills busy feeding in a shallow pool, accompanied by several Little Egrets which lurked around the edge of the group, presumably watching for any escaping prey.

Spoonbills

Spoonbills – a feeding flock accompanied by several Little Egrets

Dalmatian Pelicans were resting on the small exposed islands, where groups of Ruff, Wood Sandpipers, Common Greenshank, Black-winged Stilt and Little Stints were feeding. We found a lovely pair of Gull-billed Terns, a party of Glossy Ibis, and the shallow water was littered with herons, grebes and cormorants. On one exposed patch of flotsam, were two Night Herons, a Squacco Heron and Purple Heron together! In fact there were scores of Squacco Herons here, and everytime we scanned across the marsh we would pick out something else of interest.

Shoveler, Gadwall, Wigeon, a flock of thirty Whiskered Terns, a feeding frenzy of White Pelicans and two perched adult White-tailed Eagles! The very interesting eastern race of Greylag Goose [rubirostris] was not championed by everyone, however!

Bee-eater

Bee-eater – we had stunning views along the eastern embankment

Tearing ourselves away from this amazing spot, we drove very slowly south along the bank birding as we went. The views of Bee-eaters along here were just amazing, and some of the group saw a Lesser Spotted Woodpecker and Spotted Flycatcher briefly. More obliging, and a perfect way to end the day, was a nest building pair of Penduline Tits which entertained us for quite some time. We had heard dozens of them during the day, but they had all remained frustratingly elusive until now – fantastic views of the pair hard at work!

From here we wound our way back through the villages off the east embankment, picking up lovely roadside views of Black-headed Wagtail, and a White Storks nest busting with three species of sparrow. It was amazing how quickly the day had passed – time certainly flies when you’re having fun!

TUESDAY 1ST MAY

It was certainly a lot warmer out today, with the hazy cloud from previous days burning away to reveal clear blue skies and subsequent rising temperatures. We started our day again at our adopted local patch, by the water trough at the edge of Ano Poroia village. We were greeted again by Woodchat and Red-backed Shrikes, though there had been an obvious increase in the latter species overnight with at least four present. Golden Orioles could be heard calling around and we saw a stunning male flying around a couple of times, while we also had more views of Eastern Olivaceous Warbler and Cirl Bunting.

While watching one of the shrikes, a bulky bird popped up next to it in the same bush – a spring plumaged Barred Warbler! This was a new plumage for many of the group, and an exciting sighting for the leaders too! We could see its orange eye, as it began singing right out in the open next to the male Red-backed Shrike – stunning! Despite seeing many juveniles in autumn back in the UK, we never get to see them in this plumage in spring so this was a real treat.

Just when we though we had experienced the highlight of the morning, a pair of Levant Sparrowhawks flew low along the road and right past us, before both began to circle above the road. The male started to display literally over our heads, encouraging a second male to fly in and tussle with him! The two males chased each other into the trees, calling as they went, leaving the female circling above.

Levant Sparrowhawk 1

Levant Sparrowhawk – displaying right over our heads

This cycle was repeated several times, and in the crisp morning light the cameras among the group were rattling away as the birds passed only a few metres above us at times. It was even possible to see the diagnostic dark gular stripe on the throat! One of the males retired victorious to the nearby plane trees, where we were able to watch it perched in the open through the scopes. What a fantastic experience!

Levant Sparrowhawk 2

Levant Sparrowhawk – then perched in the trees, preening

Next we headed for Sidirokastro, to the east of Lake Kerkini, to try for one or two specialities of rocky hillside habitats. It was already very hot here, and many butterflies were on the wing – Scarce Swallowtail, Small Blue and many fritillaries. Bird wise it was a little quiet, though we noted our first Short-toed Eagle soaring, and there were some lovely Eastern Black-eared Wheatears flitting around the Byzantine castle ruins. Our quest for Western Rock Nuthatch sadly proved fruitless, and we had to make do with a Blue Rock Thrush instead. Coffee and cake in the shade of the pines by the parking area, was most welcome afterwards.

Having failed with the nuthatch here, we opted to try another site just a couple of miles away – a large quarry set up in the hillside north of Sidirokastro. This proved to be an outstanding site. First up was a Long-legged Buzzard over the parking spot, and despite being rather against the light the bird could be identified by its long wings, plain underwing coverts with contrasting black carpal patches, uniform underparts and very pale head.

Long-legged Buzzard

Long-legged Buzzard – circling high over the hills near Sidirokastro

The buzzard gained height, and soon we could see why – a large, all dark eagle was drifting low straight towards us! The bird passed directly over our heads, and we thought it was probably a Golden Eagle at first. We had niggling doubts though, mainly due to its fairly short tailed silhouette, and broad hand. We thought we could see a pale window in the primaries, too. The views themselves were inconclusive, but the photos were very instructive and also showed a pale cream shawl to the nape isolating a dark eye, broad based wings due to long secondaries, paler tail base and long sixth primary – it was an Eastern Imperial Eagle!! This was quite a discovery, being the first ever record of the species on our tours here.

Eastern Imperial Eagle

Eastern Imperial Eagle – a real bonus, a hard bird to see in Greece now

The quarry itself was equally brilliant – a Western Rock Nuthatch was singing, its loud call resonating around the quarry. We also found its mud nest being constructed in a crevice in the rock face, and so we had some superb prolonged views. Also in the quarry were two singing Ortolan Buntings, a pair of Black Redstarts, Blue Rock Thrush and both male and female Eastern Black-eared Wheatears. Absolutely fantastic birding!

Next we had a long drive down to Serres, and after negotiating our way through the town, we took the winding mountain road up to Vrontou and the Laillas ski centre. Our lunch stop was about 4 miles before the summit, in beautiful open hillside with scattered juniper and rocky scree. We didn’t see too many birds here, though some of the group noted a Woodlark and two more Short-toed Eagles were seen.

Reaching the ski centre, we explored the beautiful beech woodland near the summit, adding Mistle Thrush, Spotted Flycatcher, Blackcap, Common Chiffchaff, Coal Tit and Marsh Tit. We couldn’t find any Black Woodpeckers today though, despite a good search.

Time was ticking away from us, so we headed a short way back down the mountain and tried another track through mature pines to a viewpoint. Two Tree Pipits flushed from the path into the trees, and we had Common Ravens displaying overhead. Crested Tit showed particularly well, even allowing everyone a view in the scope, while a Rock Bunting was more furtive and made us work hard to even get half the group a view. An Eastern Subalpine Warbler singing from the pines was our first of the trip, and another new sylvia was seen in the form of a pair of Lesser Whitethroats.

Back at the vans we had a coffee, to perk us up for the final push of the day! This would be a short stop on the way back to base, to check a site for European Roller. Thankfully the birds had read the script – at least one of them had anyway – and we enjoyed lovely views of a single bird perched on wires above the track in the evening light. It flew down to the field edge a couple of times, flashing its brilliant blue and purple wings and tail as it looped back up to its perch. A perfect way to end a long but rewarding day.

Roller

Roller – perched up on the wires on our way back

WEDNESDAY 2ND MAY

The warmest day of the tour so far saw us head up to the Bulgarian border this morning at Promachonas. On the way, we picked up another European Roller perched on roadside wires, looking dazzling in the morning light as it flew down to the ground. Once at the so called ‘woodpecker wood’ we made our way down to the river and slowly along listening for any calls or activity of woodpeckers generally. This was met with mixed success – we heard a Lesser Spotted Woodpecker calling as soon as we arrived, but otherwise the only activity noted was from Great-spotted Woodpeckers which were pretty common.

Feeling a little frustrated and being nibbled by mosquitoes, we headed back and tried going east along the trail a little bit. Here in a small clearing, a black and white woodpecker flew low past us and perched on the side of a big poplar trunk – it was a Middle Spotted Woodpecker. This was our main target species here, and we managed to get about half the group a scope view before it quickly made off into the trees.

Middle Spotted Woodpecker

Middle Spotted Woodpecker – perched briefly in the trees

We tried walking along the road a bit to relocate it, but without any joy. We did see a Green Woodpecker though, and then two shrikes flew over calling showing lot of white in the wings. One perched in the canopy above us briefly – a female Masked Shrike. The male seemed to fly across the road to a small quarry, so we wandered in for a look. Sure enough we found the male Masked Shrike, and had some decent perched views though he was rather skittish.

As we walked back down to the vans, two large raptors circled into view above the Bulgarian border – two European Honey Buzzards, one dark phase and one very pale bird. It was great to see their distinctive flat-winged silhouette and see them lazily flexing the hand of the wing as they circled around a few times before continuing their migration northwards. It had been a productive stop, even if the woodpecker activity had been a bit less than hoped for. After coffee and homemade pizza in the sunshine, it was time to return to the lake area.

Vironia Quarry would be our next stop, a really nice area of streamside plane trees and open scrubby hillside with lovely views south over the lake. It was really hot here, and we failed in our attempt to find any Sombre Tits. We did, however, get fantastic views of a singing Eastern Orphean Warbler, several Eastern Black-eared Wheatears and Crag Martins nesting in the quarry.

Eastern Orphean Warbler

Eastern Orphean Warbler – singing in the bushes in the quarry

An old Rock Nuthatch nest seemed to have been taken over by sparrows, and there was no sign of the nuthatch, so it was a good job we had secured good views yesterday. Also around the quarry, a male Eastern Subalpine Warbler showed well, and as we began to make our way back out, a Golden Eagle appeared above the ridge and circled round a few times before disappearing over the top. A great comparison with yesterdays Eastern Imperial! Lunch was had in the shade of the trees by the chapel, and in the company of a pair of Syrian Woodpeckers – a very pleasant morning indeed.

The afternoon would be taken up by our boat trip onto Lake Kerkini, always one of the tour highlights. We met Nikos, our ‘captain’, at Kerkini harbour, and set off towards the northern shore of the lake where the best of the action would be. As we approached the mouth of the Strimon, two stunning adult White-winged Black Terns were seen perched quite close to the boat, before they took flight over the mirror flat water in which they were perfectly reflected.

Several Black-necked Grebes dotted the water in full breeding plumage, and now we began to approach the river mouth, we could see a LOT of pelicans ahead! The numbers of White Pelicans were most impressive, and my goodness what plumage they were in! To be so close to such large numbers of these spectacular birds was quite something.

White Pelicans

White Pelicans – large flocks were loafing around the lake

White Pelican

White Pelican – good flight views too!

We saw plenty of Dalmatian Pelicans too of course, though they loom somewhat less striking now their breeding season is reaching its finale. Other birds noted here included Eurasian Spoonbills, Black-winged Stilts and a first-summer Caspian Gull.

Dalmatian Pelican

Dalmatian Pelican – we saw lots of these too

Nikos then took us through the shallow water towards the drowned forest, and here we caught up with the White-winged Black Terns again, but now there were four or five of them, mixed with a party of Black Terns. Nikos cut the engine and we floated among them, as they danced over the water incredibly close. One of the White-winged Black Terns actually swooped in and grabbed a morsel from the water surface, right beside the boat – amazing! As the flock became more distant, we noticed that they had now been joined by three Collared Pratincoles, as the whole group moved out towards the main body of the lake. A first-summer Little Gull also passed by at close range – we did not know where to look next!

White-winged Black Tern

White-winged Black Tern – dip feeding right by our boat!

As we entered the drowned forest, so the sound and smell of breeding cormorants and herons became ever more apparent. What unfolded was quite a spectacle, as we floated among the thousands of nesting pairs of Great Cormorant. There were a few pairs of Pygmy Cormorant too, although they seemed to be a lot more wary of the boat.

Cormorant

Great Cormorant – one of thousands of nests in the drowned forest

Pygmy Cormorant

Pygmy Cormorant – seem to be a little more wary

Little Egrets, Night Herons, Squacco Herons and Spoonbills were all nesting too and seen at point blank range. The views of these birds really were very special indeed.

Spoonbill

Spoonbill – perched up in the drowned forest

Every now and then we would drift right underneath a stonking pair of Spoonbills, or see a Squacco Heron with bright blue bill base and red legs, standing motionless at touching distance.

Squacco Heron

Squacco Heron – with bright blue bill base

The Night Herons were a favourite though, especially when we got to see their crown feathers raised into a crest and their long white nape plumes erect – totally stunning birds.

Night Heron

Night Heron – stunning close views from the boat

More pelicans next as we glided across to the artificial nesting islands occupied by both species. The White Pelicans are now nesting in good numbers, having colonised in 2016, and the Dalmatian Pelicans [nesting earlier and having large chicks now] were sticking to their favoured wooden platforms. After enjoying these birds close up, we motored back across the lake to Kerkini harbour. A thunderstorm was just breaking over the hills west of the village as we arrived back, and we drove back to the hotel in the rain – we had been very lucky.

Dalmatian Pelicans

Dalmatian Pelicans – on one of the nesting platforms

After an early dinner, we returned to an area near Kerkini village to try for Eagle Owl, a species always high on everyone’s wants lists. We had plenty of time on the way for a bit of birding, and after a rooftop Little Owl the next highlight was a party of European Bee-eaters, perched on roadside wires in beautiful soft evening light. We pulled up alongside them, and then noticed that several were dropping onto the road in front of us. They were picking delicately at the surface of the tarmac, and we couldn’t quite work out what they were doing – perhaps feeding on ants or other small insects? None of us had seen this behaviour before. Meanwhile up on the wires, there were now a dozen or more Bee-eaters gathered and we could hear them calling and see them displaying with fanned tails quivering and wings arched upwards. Just stunning birds!

With another ten minutes to spare before we needed to start looking for the owls, we decided to stop briefly at Korofoudi marshes. A Black Stork was feeding with a Spoonbill by the roadside, and flew to the edge of the lake, and there were some Dalmatian Pelicans fishing close inshore. One of the Great Reed Warblers was in the small reedbed again, and a superb male Golden Oriole flew down and landed in the roadside bushes where it eventually dropped down out of view.

Back at the owl spot, we had Common Nightingale, Woodchat Shrike, Cirl Bunting and Eastern Olivaceous Warbler before dusk fell, and two or three hoots from the Eagle Owl up on the cliff. We saw it in flight briefly, but unfortunately most people weren’t able to get onto it. Brief glimpses of European Nightjar and Tawny Owl on the way back, and a Eurasian Scop’s Owl calling, were the last action of a long day.

THURSDAY 3RD MAY

What. A. Day! Our trip down to the Axios Delta area west of Thessaloniki is always something of a trip highlight, offering saline lagoons and coastal marshes and of course, lots of migrant wading birds, gulls and terns. We opted to start at the Kalachori lagoon end, which was about one hour twenty minutes drive south from our base, and we arrived at our first stop at the edge of the saltmarsh, to be greeted by three Stone Curlews standing sentinel among the samphire. In the same area, looking east towards the main lagoon, we found our first Lesser Grey Shrike of the trip in the coastal tamarisks, a bird we were beginning to wonder whether or not we would see on the trip at all.

Moving around onto the coastal track, we reached the main lagoon complete with its flock of two hundred or so Greater Flamingoes, still lingering into the breeding season. Despite being mainly young birds, there were still a few gorgeous adults present too, normally having left for the Mediterranean breeding colonies by now.

Also on these pools were a great deal of small waders, and in the excellent morning light we enjoyed some superb and educational views of flocks of gorgeous Curlew Sandpipers and Little Stints and a few Dunlin, Ruff and Turnstone admixed. There were Common and Wood Sandpipers too, and several Little Terns resting on the islands close to the cycle path which bisects the two main pools.

We were able to get really close to the waders here, and this enabled us to pick out two Temminck’s Stints, feeding furtively at the edge in typical fashion. One was a striking rusty toned individual, but both showed the typical yellow legs and randomly dark centred scapular feathers on the back. We were close enough to hear their delicate trilling call too, and see the wholly white outer tail in flight.

Further down, we could see a very impressive flock of about two hundred Spotted Redshanks, with a few Common Greenshanks mixed in, and we found both Common Ringed and Kentish Plovers on the open sandy areas. Once again a highlight, a group of seven stunning White-winged Black Terns were hawking over the water right alongside the path – it was very hard not to be totally distracted by these dazzling birds, but there were a lot of small waders to look through!

After a coffee break, we continued to the far end of the main lagoon, as we had been able to pick out a couple of very distant Marsh Sandpipers and wanted to get some better views if possible. We found a spot where the birds were a bit closer, and we also had them feeding alongside Common Greenshank for comparison. Six birds at least altogether, but perhaps not as stunning as the huge flock of Spotted Redshanks which we could now see at much closer range.

A first-summer Little Gull was floating on the water just below us, and we also saw some nice Black-winged Stilts, Avocets and a couple of drake Garganey from this vantage point before it was time to move on. Taking the track west, we crossed the causeway and over the sluice, heading south and following the coast towards the fishing huts. A Northern Wheatear was feeding on a sandy area next to the track, a late migrant on its way north.

Wheatear

Northern Wheatear – a late migrant on the coast

We paused by a small area of enclosed saline pools at the edge of the bay, to look at some close Pygmy Cormorants and our first Common Redshanks of the trip, when we noticed a medium sized plover feeding on the mud close by. First impressions were of perhaps a Grey Plover, but this was quickly dismissed by the birds small size and lightweight bill, and the presence of some yellow in the scapulars and tertials.

It was clearly a Golden Plover of some sort, but right away the alarm bells were ringing as this did not look like a European! Its grey appearance was of course the first anomalous feature, but it showed a small head, very long legs but a short primary projection. Its head pattern was also interesting, as it showed a fairly distinct supercilium, pale spot on the ear coverts and dark cap – though these features were not as contrasting as one would expect on an American. The penny was dropping, this looked every inch like a Pacific Golden Plover in first summer plumage!

Pacific Golden Plover

Pacific Golden Plover – a great find, possibly only the 7th record for Greece

Having chatted though the ID, we knew that a flash of the underwing would confirm our suspicions, and with that the bird flew a short way with a group of Turnstones – now we had something to compare it directly to, we could see how small it was! But not only that, the underwing coverts were ash grey! At this point we opted to disembark and go for scope views, which we enjoyed for the next half hour or so. We saw it again in flight too, noting the projection of the toes beyond the tail tip and those underwings! It was a subtle and beautiful wader, and at the time of writing we think only the 7th record of Pacific Golden Plover for Greece.

It took a further twenty minutes to reach our lunch spot, overlook a series of islands occupied by a thriving colony of Mediterranean Gulls. The sound was quite impressive, with a hundred or more birds ‘kyowing!’ throughout our stop here – in fact it was hard to hear anything else! We manged to pull out a Red-throated Pipit going over though, and a singing Calandra Lark which posed distantly on the ground too.

Our main target bird here was Slender-billed Gull, and we had to accept fairly distant but acceptable views of two adults on the water. A Caspian Tern was a nice surprise though, flying past before joining a second bird and dropping into another group of Mediterranean Gulls and Sandwich Terns on one of the distant islets.

The remainder of the track from here to the Axios river was quiet, though we saw Hoopoe, Red-backed Shrike, Little Owl and a dombrowskii Yellow Wagtail. The next leg of the track north up the Axios embankment was the most heavily pot-holed of the lot, so progress was slow. This gave us plenty of time to spot more birds though! Many Wood Sandpipers, lovely close Spoonbills, a Purple Heron, rufous phase female Cuckoo and Garganey were all overshadowed by three stunning Spur-winged Plovers in perfect light just west of the bank. This was our main target for this area, and we found them in literally the last bit of suitable habitat along this stretch – very fortunate! Bumping our way out eventually to the main road, we then had about forty-five minutes driving north to our final site of the day.

Spur-winged Plover

Spur-winged Plover – kept us waiting until the last stretch

Its always nice to visit a new site on the tours, and our colleague Paul Roberts had recommended a small reservoir to us for the way back, near Polykastro. A singing Black-headed Bunting and male Red-backed Shrike as we approached the site were a good omen, and we loved the lush green habitat all around the reservoir which looked like a veritable haven to migrants.

It was a lovely temperature now, and the evening light was superb, and soon we were watching Collared Pratincoles hawking over the fields, and Great Reed Warblers croaking from the top of the reeds. In the distance, we could see a flock of about seven Lesser Kestrels hunting, and as we walked up the bank a flock of Whiskered Terns flew by.

Peering over carefully onto the water, the first bird that greeted us was a drake Ferruginous Duck! There were a dozen or more others on the reservoir, along with Tufted Duck, Common Pochard, Gadwall, Shoveler, Little and Black-necked Grebes and Garganey. Over the water were Common, Little, Black and White-winged Black Terns, and a Long-legged Buzzard flew by in the distance mobbed by a Hooded Crow. Another Lesser Grey Shrike was signing from the wires alongside the reservoir embankment here too.

It certainly was a delightful spot, and we ended the day scoping up to twenty five Collared Pratincoles, first on the ground and then sweeping back and forth over the cornfields. A breathless day with so many highlights, and the trip list now approaching 180 species!

FRIDAY 4TH MAY

Our quietest day of the trip so far, mainly due to the heat, but it is all relative – we still saw an awful lot of very good birds! We knew it was going to be a warm one, so opted for an early pre-breakfast excursion at 0630 up the hillside behind the village. After negotiating the network of very narrow streets, we found our way out to the eastern edge of the village where we parked up and set off on foot up the mountain track.

Winding our way up round the first couple of bends, the air was full of the song of Common Nightingale, Cirl Bunting and Woodchat Shrike – the latter being particularly common in this scrubby hillside habitat. Eastern Subalpine Warbler was also easy to see here, and we had some really great scope views of singing males – though we had still not seen a female on the trip!

Our main target bird for this site was Sombre Tit, one which is very easy to miss particularly at this time of year. We had some pretty decent views of a single bird, being pretty furtive and never perching in the open for long. In the end we were pretty satisfied with what we had seen, knowing this was likely our only chance on the trip to connect. Hoopoe, Levant Sparrowhawk and a superb female Eastern Orphean Warbler were also noted, the latter alarm calling to a Woodchat and grubbing around in the shrubs by the side of the track.

After breakfast, we called in briefly at the water trough, though things were definitely quieter here than in recent days – the local Red-backed Shrikes, Eastern Olivaceous Warblers and singing Black-headed Bunting supplemented by another good view of the male Levant Sparrowhawk, and a migrant Spotted Flycatcher.

Eastern Olivaceous Warbler

Eastern Olivaceous Warbler – seen or heard singing daily

Our plan for the rest of the morning was to travel down the western shore of the lake to Lithotopos, and on to Himarros where a track winds along the stream and up into the low forested hills. We saw two spectacular feeding frenzies on the lake as we drove along, of Dalmatian Pelicans and cormorants, but with a mission in mind we resisted the temptation to stop.

Reaching Himarros, a young Goshawk flew low over the track mobbed by Hooded Crows as we drove down, and we could also see two Short-toed Eagles and a Lesser Spotted Eagle soaring above the surrounding hillsides. It was already really hot here, and we knew we were going to struggle a bit – we certainly didn’t hear our main hoped for target, which was Olive Tree Warbler. It was right on the cusp for them arriving, and unfortunately we drew a blank on this occasion.

Red-backed Shrike 2

Red-backed Shrike – singing & carrying nest material

Eastern Subalpine Warbler and Red-backed Shrike were really common in the scrub here, the latter seen nest building and the males singing and calling all around. We glimpsed a Masked Shrike too, but the bird was really furtive and keeping to the deep shade inside thickets of bushes, and not wanting to come out.

Black Stork

Black Stork – circled over our heads at Himarros

Overhead we did really well, with a Black Stork and another Goshawk seen circling above, later joined by two Lesser Spotted Eagles and a cracking Honey Buzzard which appeared low above us. Back in the shade of the riverside trees, we saw two Spotted Flycatchers, and then plenty of Bee-eaters as we made our way back out of the valley. A kettle of pelicans in a thermal above the valley contained both White and Dalmatian Pelicans, making for a nice comparison.

Pelicans

White & Dalmatian Pelicans – circling together on a thermal

There were lots of other things to look at here – not just birds. We had good views of both Hermann’s and Spur-thighed Tortoise. A Stripe-necked Terrapin was crossing the track as we drove in and a Common Green Lizard was very obliging on the path. There were tons of butterflies too, including a good variety of fritillaries and lots of Little Tiger Blues. A Spoonwing (or Thread-winged Antlion) which flew across the path was particularly impressive.

Hermann's Tortoise

Hermann’s Tortoise – one of the two species we saw around Lake Kerkini

Deciding how to manage the hot part of the day was a tricky one, but we opted to head for higher ground in the hope of a cool breeze, and so decided to wind our way up the track above Neo Petritsi village to the Bulgarian border. About 7km up, we stopped for lunch looking back over the forest – a Short-toed Eagle was hanging on the wind above us and gave superb views, while we also had more opportunities to study Honey Buzzard with one circling up right in front of us. As it folded its wings and made a stoop, we realised there was an interloper in its territory – a moulting female Goshawk which circled round once before dropping out of view.

Short-toed Eagle

Short-toed Eagle – hung in the air above us at lunchtime

As we climbed higher, a further 6km to the border post, the road passed through delightful beech woodland resounding to the songs of Blackcap and Robin! What we were not expecting though, was a Wildcat running up the road in front of us. The animal dived off into the undergrowth down a steep bank, and by quickly bailing out of the van we saw it again running off through the undergrowth, but that was it – a sighting based purely on chance.

Nearing the border, we parked and took a walk along the ridge for about 1km, passing through more nice forest of the way – we kept an ear open for White-backed Woodpecker, but no such luck! There were very few birds around at this elevation, but two Short-toed Eagles showed really well, and a pair of Hawfinch flew low over calling.

Back down at ground level, and we popped into the Strimon marshes for a quick look. The pools were holding a fair bit of water, and we found several Wood Sandpipers, Black-headed Wagtail, Little Ringed Plover and two Temminck’s Stints here. More impressive though, was a feeding frenzy of over thirty Grey Herons, 26 Spoonbills and 9 Black Storks, catching small fish in the dwindling puddles. Red-backed Shrike and Black-headed Bunting were also around – every stop seemed capable of producing a haul of decent birds!

Our last hour or so of the day would be spent on the eastern embankment of Lake Kerkini, and despite the tricky light at this time of day we saw a load of birds. Bee-eaters and Hoopoe were looking stunning on the east side of the bank, illuminated by the evening light, and we had a lovely Lesser Grey Shrike perched up too. The water level had risen considerably since our first visit here, and many of the same species were present – Spoonbills, Glossy Ibises, Great White and Cattle Egrets, flocks of Wood Sandpipers and distant Whiskered Terns. Temminck’s Stint, six Curlew Sandpipers and a fine Marsh Sandpiper were new in though, replacing the scores of Squacco Herons present previously which were now conspicuous by their absence.

Heading back towards Megalachori, a stunning adult Purple Heron was fishing in the open, with a second bird among the reeds where we searched in vain for Little Bittern and Little Crake, without success. Unbelievably, it was now almost 7pm – we had to tear ourselves away! As had been typical for the trip as a whole, there was time for one more good bird – a gorgeous female Red-footed Falcon circling over the road by the drinking trough on the way back to base. After initially only being seen drifting away, the bird thankfully turned and circled right back over us, putting the tin lid on our last day in the field.

Red-footed Falcon

Red-footed Falcon – turned and circled back over us

SATURDAY 5TH MAY

A seamless transition was enjoyed back to Thessaloniki this morning, with a few birds seen from the motorway en route such as Roller, Masked Shrike, a couple of Black-headed Buntings and two Ring-necked Parakeets! We dropped the vans off at the hire car depot at 0930 as planned, and despite leaving a little late from Thessaloniki, were back in London pretty much on schedule at 1330.

It had been a great seven days in Greece – the weather was warm and sunny, there were lots of fantastic birds and a great selection of other wildlife too. We didn’t want to leave! The good news is that we will be going back again in 2019 – provisionally on 28th April to 4th May. If you like the sound of this year’s trip and might be tempted to join us, please let us know…

July 2017 – Midsummer Majorca

No a tour but a family holiday. A ‘busman’s holiday’, because there are always opportunities to go looking for birds and other wildlife, even in the Mediterranean in midsummer! We had been to Majorca just a couple of years ago, but it is still a great place to revisit. This gave us an opportunity to visit a few different sites and try to get better photographs of some species.

Balearic Warbler is one of the key species to see on any visit to Majorca, as they are endemic to the Balearic Islands. They are most easily seen in early spring, when the males are singing, and at other times they can be very skulking. They live in the low scrub, garrigue, often close to the sea, and feed very low down or on the ground in the dense thorny bushes, generally below knee height.

We saw several Balearic Warblers on our last visit but, being July then too, they were very hard to photograph. This visit, it looked like it would be the same story until we stumbled across a male collecting food along a path through the coastal scrub one morning. We followed it as it flew across and disappeared into a clump of bushes, before flying out with a faecal sac – they were clearly nesting there. Quietly standing a short distance away from the bushes, concealed behind a large rock, we were treated to fantastic views of the two adults as they came in and out with food.

Balearic Warbler male 1Balearic Warbler – the male, crown feathers raised

Balearic Warbler male 2Balearic Warbler – the male again, with bright red eye ring

Balearic Warbler female 1Balearic Warbler – the female, with orange eye ring & paler on forehead / lores

Moustached Warbler breeds very locally around the Mediterranean and this is a great place to catch up with them. This was another species we wanted to get better photographs of, although they seemed to be harder to find at s’Albufera in 2017. There was a lot less vegetation in the main channel this year, where they had been very obvious on our last visit, collecting food.

Fortunately, we found a couple of families feeding young along a reedy channel further into the reserve. They were mostly very low down in the reeds, but we did get some nice views of them in the end.

Moustached WarblerMoustached Warbler – feeding along a reedy channel

Another species we wanted to spend some time photographing on this visit was Eleonora’s Falcon. This species breeds on islands in the Mediterranean, with a delayed breeding season to coincide with the southbound autumn migration of small birds which it catches to feed to its young. They can be found in several places around Majorca, but we spent a couple of very pleasant afternoons watching them zooming around the rocky cliffs on the Formentor peninsula. Fantastic birds!

Eleonora's Falcon 1

Eleonora's Falcon 2

Eleonora's Falcon 3Eleonora’s Falcon – a pale morph adult

Eleonora's Falcon 4Eleonora’s Falcon – a dark morph adult, with sooty underparts

A trip up into the Tramuntana Mountains on one morning produced a nice selection of other raptors. This is a good place to see both Black Vulture and Griffon Vulture and we saw several of both, rather distant initially but then better views overhead as we stopped at Mortitx on our way back down.

Black VultureBlack Vulture – with distinctive pale feet

Griffon VultureGriffon Vulture – with paler underwing coverts compared to Black Vulture

Mortitx is the release site for the project to reintroduce Bonelli’s Eagle to Majorca and we managed to see a distant immature bird here. It is a long walk down into the valley to the best area for them and it was the middle of the day when we stopped there – too hot to walk all the way in!

Moltoni’s Warbler was the other target species for us in the mountains. We had seen several on our last visit, but they proved much more difficult this time. We did see a couple of them, but we were perhaps a week late this year, as we had managed to catch them feeding recently fledged young last time.

Moltoni's WarblerMoltoni’s Warbler – a dull female, lacking the male’s pink underparts

Since our last visit, the Spotted Flycatchers breeding on the Balearic Islands, Corsica and Sardinia have been split out as a separate species by the IOU, with the English name of Mediterranean Flycatcher. So, well worth looking at again. They are very similar but rather paler and more sparsely streaked below than our Spotted Flycatchers. Fortunately they are very common – and very charismatic birds to watch too.

Mediterranean Flycatcher 2

Mediterranean Flycatcher 1Mediterranean Flycatchers – recently split from Spotted Flycatcher by IOU

Balearic Woodchat Shrike is still just a race of the more widespread Woodchat Shrike, subspecies badius. It is rather locally distributed on Majorca, although we saw several at Son Real one afternoon, which appears to be a good site for this subspecies. The light was not great for photography, so here is a good reason to go back to Majorca, to get better images of these birds.

Balearic Woodchat ShrikeBalearic Woodchat Shrike – lacking the white patch at the base of the primaries

One of the other highlights of our visits to Majorca has been watching the herons and egrets at s’Albufera. There is a large mixed breeding colony in the trees by the main channel here and the stone bridge provides a great vantage point to watch them at close quarters, flying in and out of the colony. Great for photography!

Glossy Ibis was a real feature amongst the herons this year. We didn’t see any on our visit in 2015, but there were several around the colony and apparently they have bred here this year.

Glossy IbisGlossy Ibis – apparently bred at s’Albufera this year

In with the constant stream of Cattle and Little Egrets, this is a great place to see Squacco Herons and Night Herons too.

Squacco Heron 1

Squacco Heron 2Squacco Heron – flying back to the breeding colony

Night HeronNight Heron – over the stone bridge in the morning

Cattle EgretCattle Egret – the commonest species flying in and out of the colony

There are also smaller numbers of Purple Herons and the odd Grey Heron here too, but they don’t tend to fly along the channel. However, we were lucky to have a Purple Heron fly right over us as we explored along one of the paths beside the channel. We also saw a couple of Little Bitterns at s’Albufera, but they were not as obliging as on our last visit – a male which flew in and landed on the edge of a reedy ditch very close to us, but partly obscured by reeds, and a more distant female along the main channel.

Purple HeronPurple Heron – circled over us by the main channel one morning

The reserve here is a great place to get close to several other Mediterranean wetland species. Red-knobbed Coot, Purple Swamphen and Red-crested Pochard were all reintroduced here in the 1990s after having died out in previous years. The first two species in particular can be seen fairly easily here these days. As well as plenty of these, we also saw Red-crested Pochard and a pair of Marbled Duck too at s’Albufera,

Red-knobbed CootRed-knobbed Coot – reintroduced to Majorca

Purple SwamphenPurple Swamphen – also reintroduced to Majorca, common now in s’Albufera

S’Albufera is also good for waders. It is a great place to watch Kentish Plovers and Little Ringed Plovers in front of the hides. A couple of the pairs of Kentish Plover had very recently hatched young – little more than a ball of fluff on ungainly long legs!

Kentish PloverKentish Plover – a male, in front of one of the hides

Kentish Plover juvKentish Plover – a very small, recently hatched juvenile

We saw various other species of waders both here and at Salobrar de Campos, the saltpans in the south of the island. The first few migrants were coming through – the highlights being a single Spotted Redshank and a single Curlew Sandpiper, along with more Green and Wood Sandpipers, plus Curlew and Greenshank.

Black-winged Stilts are found on all the wetlands. Salobrar de Campos is a great place to photograph them, as they fly overhead noisily protesting at your presence!

Black-winged Stilt 1

Black-winged Stilt 2

Black-winged Stilt 3Black-winged Stilts – a common breeding bird on the wetlands in Majorca

We saw several Audouin’s Gulls bathing in the main channel by the path out to s’Albufera in the afternoons, but the best place to get close to them was on the beach at Port de Pollenca in the evenings among the empty sun loungers! The gulls come down to look for scraps after the crowds have thinned out and can be very obliging here.

Audouin's Gull 1

Audouin's Gull 2Audouin’s Gull – close views on the beach in the early evening

Aside from all the speciality species and wetland birds, there are also many other regular Mediterranean species to be seen here. Thekla Larks on the Spanish mainland can be hard to separate from the confusingly similar Crested Lark, but on Majorca there are none of the latter making the identification much more straightforward!

Thekla LarkThekla Lark – not common but encountered fairly regularly

It is always a pleasure to watch Bee-eaters and there were plenty around s’Albufera and the neighbouring areas.

Bee-eaterBee-eater – always great birds to watch

That is just a small selection of the birds which we managed to see in a week on Mallorca. The final list for the holiday tallied up to 98 species (plus a White-cheeked Pintail – presumably recently escaped from somewhere!). That is a very respectable total for midsummer – and we even managed to find plenty of time for relaxing by the pool in the heat of the day! It is a great place to visit and we will be back…

July 2015 – Birding Mallorca

I have not been to Mallorca for almost 35 years so this year seemed like an appropriate time for a return visit. The Balearic Islands have a number of birds for which they are well known and a lot more is known about the taxonomy of the forms in the region now. Some birds which breed there have been elevated to full species in the intervening period, whereas others remain interesting subspecies – for now at least. Either way, there were quite a number of birds I was very keen to catch up with again.

Mallorca is also a great place to see a variety of the more regular southern European birds. While July is not the ideal time for a visit, as it can get very hot during the day, we still had a very successful trip. We saw just under 100 species in total during the week we were there, and all the main ones we had wanted to see. The photos below show a few of the highlights – I can thoroughly recommend a birding trip to the island.

P1050024P1040238Balearic Warbler – a recent split from Marmora’s Warbler, this species is one of the main targets, normally to be found skulking in coastal garrigue

P1050327P1050314Moltoni’s Warbler – another very recent split (from Subalpine Warbler), found on mountain hillsides, the distinctive Wren-like call gives it away – this female (above) was feeding a couple of juveniles (below)

P1040999P1040805Moustached Warbler – found sparsely but widely around the Mediterranean and S Europe, s’Albufera on Mallorca is one of the best places to see this secretive reedbed-dwelling species

P1040768P1040765Eleonora’s Falcon – found on rocky islands and coastal cliffs around the Mediterranean, Mallorca is a great place to watch this species in action

P1040580P1040658Balearic Woodchat Shrike – currently still treated as a subspecies (badius) this form lacks the white primary patch of the other Woodchat Shrikes

P1040698Spotted Flycatcher – the local race, balearica, is noticeably paler and less streaked than the ones we see in UK

P1040710P1040727Crossbill – likewise, the local balearica race of Crossbill has noticeably different calls to the ones we see here

P1040530P1040584Red-knobbed Coot – also known as Crested Coot, this species was extinct on Mallorca but has been reintroduced and now appears to be doing well – it is easy to see around the reserve at s’Albufera

P1040577Purple Swamphen – also reintroduced to s’Albufera and also seemingly now doing very well

P1040472P1040499Little Bittern – s’Albufera reserve provides fantastic opportunities to observe this typically secretive species, the female (immediately above) was watched for hours feeding quietly along a reed-fringed ditch

P1040600Little Bittern – this female clamboured up into the top of a large clump of reeds and perched, neck outstretched, for a couple of minutes while we stood and admired it

As well as the Little Bitterns, s’Albufera reserve has a wide variety of other egrets and herons, which can all be watched at close quarters, particularly flying in and out of the nesting colonies.

P1040974Squacco Heron

P1040587Night Heron

P1040960Cattle Egret

P1050005Purple Heron

P1040440Great White Egret – a more recent arrival, a couple were seen feeding around the scrapes

P1050201Greater Flamingo – mostly a winter visitor, a few seem to remain for the summer around the saltpans in the south

P1040880P1050182Black-winged Stilt – easy to see at all the main wetlands, and always a pleasure

P1040451Kentish Plover – also a common bird at the main wetland sites, but particularly accommodating at s’Albufera, a great place to study the species up close

P1040183Stone Curlew – still a fairly common bird of farmland on the island, more often heard in the evening than seen during the day

P1050115Audouin’s Gull – previously rather difficult to see here, this bird is now common and often to be found scavenging around beaches in the late afternoon when the crowds have gone

P1050344Black (Cinereous) Vulture – not hard to find in the Tramuntana Mountains in the north of the island, though Griffon Vultures have colonised in recent years and are now also to be found in many of the same places

P1050057Booted Eagle – not as common as in S Spain, for example, but still can be seen regularly in the mountains, this one a pale adult

P1050253Thekla Lark – the only Galerida lark on the island, hence avoiding the risk of confusion with the very similar Crested Lark of the mainland, the birds here have a straighter lower mandible than those elsewhere

P1050328Tawny Pipit – not uncommon in the right habitat, but not a particularly easy bird to find, this one a juvenile

P1040876Sardinian Warbler – one of the commonest birds on the island, but often skulking in the undergrowth, this female fed out in the open on the ground wrestling with a large winged insect

P1040194Bee-eater – found widely across southern Europe but always a delight to see, we watched this pair visiting their nest burrow in a sandy cliff face

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27-30th May 2014 – Norfolk at its best (& worst!)

The weather chart had been looking good for this week. Well, good for birds if not good for the actual weather. There had to be something unusual out there waiting to be found.

Tuesday looked the most promising day to start, with the combination of NE winds coming off the continent, together with rain. However, it turned out to be a damp squib, in more ways than one! I tried various sites in the morning, with no sign of any migrants. Still convinced there had to be something good out there, I headed for Blakeney Point. The rain had grown increasingly persistent but seemed to subside for a while, so I set off. I should perhaps have been put off by the people returning bedraggled, having seen nothing, but I pushed on to beyond Halfway House before the rain came back with a vengeance. Very unusual for it to be as bad as this, finally I gave in and trudged back, defeated and disappointed.

Wednesday started overcast and cool, but at least it wasn’t raining. Not to be put off by the day before, I headed straight for Blakeney Point again and set off back over the shingle. I was a short distance before halfway and hadn’t seen anything when I received a phone call to say that no migrants of any note had been seen at the end of the Point so far that morning. Needless to say, that caused my enthusiasm to wane a little. However, I pressed on anyway and just a couple of minutes later I was glad that I did! A small bird flew up from the edge of the saltmarsh which immediately caught my attention. I saw it in flight twice more and I had an idea what it was – it was clearly a small Sylvia warbler and most likely a Subalpine Warbler. However, it disappeared into cover and I couldn’t find it again on my own. Thankfully, several others were also heading out onto the Point and pretty soon I had managed to gather a small group. Together, we scoured the area and eventually relocated the bird. It took us some time to see it properly and finally we were able to confirm that not only was it indeed a Subalpine Warbler, but also that it showed the characters associated with the Eastern form, a very good find indeed.

The rest of the day saw a steady stream of migrants finally reveal themselves. The other highlight was a cracking lemon-yellow Icterine Warbler which suddenly appeared from nowhere in the Plantation. Not one, but two stunning male Black Redstarts feeding together around the buildings were arguably the smartest birds of the day. We also saw Redstart, several Spotted Flycatchers, Whinchat and a good selection of other warblers. All-in-all, a great day on the Point.

On Thursday, I had business to attend to or I would have returned to Blakeney Point. Instead, I had to content myself with going to see the female Black-headed Bunting which had been found the evening before at West Runton. A great rarity in this part of the world.

The weather looked less favourable on Friday. While the wind direction looked good overnight, it was gradually moving round, and the clear and sunny conditions suggested birds might move on. Undaunted, I set off along Blakeney Point once again. The walk out revealed rather little – many birds had indeed departed and just a few commoner migrants remained. Still, it is always a beautiful place to walk in the sunshine, and I also finally caught up with the stunning male Snow Bunting which had been lingering on the shingle ridge. The Black Redstarts were still present and the only other bird of interest was a Spotted Flycatcher.

I was tempted to leave, but bumped into some friends sat in the sunshine by the Plantation so decided to join them for lunch. While we were talking, I heard a bird call in the distance which I thought I recognised. It came a bit closer and I suddenly clicked that it was a Bee-eater! I leapt up shouting and a quick scan of the sky revealed two Bee-eaters coming low over the dunes. They passed right over our heads, then headed on west over the old Lifeboat House and away. They have always been one of my favourite birds, ever since I used to thumb through old field guides as a boy, and such a great joy to see them in the skies of Norfolk. The long walk back was broken with a stop for a Siberian Chiffchaff which had been located in the bushes on the edge of the beach – while we were there, it broke into song, a rare sound indeed here and very different from the common Chiffchaffs we had been listening to earlier in the Plantation. A very different day to Wednesday, but once again what a day!

It all goes to show just how exciting birding in Norfolk can be when the conditions are right.Image

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