Tag Archives: Dalmatian Pelican

1st-8th June 2019 – Romania

A week-long International Tour to Romania, organised together with our friends from Oriole Birding. The Danube Delta is one of the ‘must-see’ wildlife destinations and we spent four days exploring it, sleeping each night on our floating hotel in a different location, right out in the midst of it. We also spent a couple of days exploring the Dobrogea region, down to the Black Sea coast, which is host to some species right at the western edge of their range. A fantastic experience!

SATURDAY 1ST JUNE

Our 10.35 flight from Luton Airport to Bucharest arrived on time. After realising we had come out in a different arrivals hall, we quickly found our local guide, Florin, who took us outside to where our minibus and driver were waiting. There were a few House Sparrows, House Martins and Jackdaws around the terminal building, before we set off on the long drive to Tulcea.

Out in the suburbs, we saw mostly Collared Doves and Feral Pigeons but as we got out into the countryside beyond, we could see Rooks, Hooded Crows and one or two Pheasants in the fields. More exciting, a Long-legged Buzzard circled over the road ahead of us. We broke the journey with a stop at a service station for coffee and/or ice cream, where several Greenfinches were singing outside.

Afterwards, as we continued the journey, we started to see a greater variety of birds. It had clearly rained a lot in recent weeks, given the amount of water on the fields, and some of the wetter areas held a selection of herons – a Great White Egret, a few Little Egrets, two Squacco Herons, three Black-crowned Night Herons, and a couple of the group spotted a Glossy Ibis lurking in a ditch. As we approached the Danube crossing, there were more White Storks, including several nests with chicks on the telegraph posts in some of the villages.

The wires beside the road started to get some more interesting birds too. In one area, we spotted five Rollers in quick succession. There were Bee-eaters too, particularly as we approached a steep section of road which winds down through a small grove of acacia trees. There were plenty of Rooks in the trees, but no sign of any Red-footed Falcons, which also nest here. However, just beyond the trees we spotted a smart male Red-footed Falcon hovering over the grass beside the road.

Further into the Dobrugea region, and we started to see more Red-backed Shrikes and one or two Corn Buntings on the wires. It was starting to get dark now and a Little Owl was perched on the chimney of a house in one of the villages we passed. We finally made it into Tulcea at about 9pm, and we headed straight to the port where the floating hotel, which would be our home for the next five nights, was waiting. After a delicious dinner on board, we retired to our cabins.

SUNDAY 2ND JUNE

There were a few gulls around the harbour in Tulcea when we woke up this morning. As well as plenty of Black-headed Gulls, a couple of Caspian Gulls came close enough to get a good look at. After breakfast on board – cereals with local yoghurt, bread and honey, eggs, and a selection of ham and cheese – we boarded the smaller boat which would take us around the Delta (the floating hotel would be towed out to meet us later). The main Tulcea branch of the Danube is big and open and was fairly birdless at first, apart from a few more Caspian Gulls. After a quick stop to retrieve someone’s cap, which had blown off into the river, we headed over towards the junction with the smaller Mila 36 channel. A Grey-headed Woodpecker flew in and landed in the top of some tall poplars on the bank and our first White Pelicans, a group of fourteen, circled overhead.

White Pelicans 1

White Pelicans – our first of the trip, circled overhead

Having turned off the main channel onto Mila 36, we started to come across a lot more birds. There were Kingfishers calling all around here, zooming back and forth across the water and in and out of the trees. We could hear a variety of different birds in the trees, but they were hard to see in all the leaves and undergrowth. An Icterine Warbler and several Eastern Olivaceous Warblers were singing, as well as both Common and one or two Thrush Nightingales, the more grating and clicking phrases of the latter giving them away. Three calling Collared Flycatchers gave only glimpses but a couple of Spotted Flycatchers sallied out of the trees. There were more woodpeckers too, several Great Spotted, another Grey-headed, and we heard out first Middle Spotted Woodpecker.

The Delta is all about its waterbirds, and is packed full of herons of various sizes. There were plenty of Grey Herons and Little Egrets at first and then, as we got further in, we found lots of Squacco Herons which flushed from the banks as we passed, changing instantly from buff-brown to white. Several Black-crowned Night Herons and a smaller number of Glossy Ibis flew over.

Squacco Heron

Squacco Heron – a very common heron in the Delta

We encountered our first Pygmy Cormorants too, but they are very skittish and typically flew off ahead of us. More pelicans circled overhead, mostly flocks of White Pelicans, but we also saw our first Dalmatian Pelican, typically a lone bird which flew over.

Pygmy Cormorant 1

Pygmy Cormorant – mostly very skittish and flew off before we got too close

A male Little Bittern flew across the channel ahead of us and landed in the base of the reeds, disappearing in before we could get a good look at it. When we stopped to scan, a Penduline Tit started calling over on the other side, and we saw it perched briefly in the top of the reeds. One of the group, scanning for the tit, found a female Little Bittern instead, up on top of the reeds further back. We had already heard several Great Reed Warblers singing in the reeds as we passed, and now one perched up nicely on a dead reed stem. A little further on, and a pair of Hobbys were zooming around through the tops of the trees beside the channel, before landing up in a poplar.

We stopped for coffee at the entrance to Lake Nebunu. As we motored up, a Raccoon Dog was on the bank nearby, but quickly scuttled into the vegetation. There were lots of Mute Swans and Great Crested Grebes out on the lake. A pair of Common Terns and about 15 Whiskered Terns were flying round and dip feeding over the vegetation across the entrance. We could see lots of cormorants and herons coming and going from their nesting colony in the tall trees at the back. Two White-tailed Eagles appeared over the trees, and one was mobbed by a Hooded Crow, which was just a tiny speck by comparison at that range. A Pallas’s Gull flew over the back of the lake too, like an oversized Black-headed Gull, but it was rather distant and disappeared from view behind the trees.

After coffee, we carried on along the channel and hadn’t gone much further when we came across our first Red-necked Grebes. The first one dived ahead of the boat and disappeared into the reeds, but then we found four more together, and had a great view of them, resplendent in breeding plumage with bright rusty-red necks.

Red-necked Grebe 1

Red-necked Grebe – in smart breeding plumage

Next stop was by a White-tailed Eagle nest, which was high in the trees beside the channel. One of the two juveniles was still on the nest, but the other was hiding higher up in the branches above. They were almost fully grown, not long to fledging now. There was no sign of either of the adults at first, until two White-tailed Eagles appeared through the treetops. One of the adults was chasing off an immature, which had presumably flown too close to the nest. Once the intruder had fled, the adult flew back round and landed in a tree not far away.

We cut back across Lake Furtuna, a large open lake surrounded by reeds. Several White Pelicans and a single Dalmatian Pelican were swimming out on the water. There was more floating vegetation over the far side, where we found lots of Whiskered Terns, four Garganey and a pair of Gadwall. It was full of grebes too, nesting Great Crested Grebes, several pairs of Black-necked Grebes and four Red-necked Grebes too. Our first Purple Heron flew over.

Dalmatian Pelican

Dalmatian Pelican – we saw small numbers daily in the Delta

On the smaller channels especially, there were Cuckoos and Rollers everywhere. A brief Golden Oriole flew over, but was not seen by most of the group and would remain a target for a good view for many for a while yet. There were lots of dragonflies – mainly Emperor, Lesser Emperor and Scarlet Darter, and plenty of Banded Demoiselles beside the channels. As we got out into a more agricultural area, several Western Yellow Wagtails flew up from the feet of a herd cows, though it was hard to see for sure whether these ones were pure Black-headed Wagtails or one of the array of hybrids.

We met the floating hotel for lunch at Maliuc, and while we were settled on board enjoying our three course feast we were towed slowly along to the next location. After lunch, we had a couple of hours to relax over the heat of the day, take a siesta or watch the world go by from the boat. The banks were more open here and in the wetter spots there were lots of Great White Egrets and Glossy Ibis. Three Hoopoes flew alongside as we passed and there seemed to be Rollers on just about every bush.

Hoopoe

Hoopoe – several were seen on the river bank today

With the floating hotel moored again, we set off about 5pm in the smaller boat to explore the area. A Penduline Tit was calling from the trees on the opposite bank and a Garden Warbler was singing from the trees on our side. It was still hot, and quiet to start as we checked out a couple of smaller lakes.

The first was overgrown with Water Soldier and not surprisingly there were several Norfolk Hawkers patrolling along the edge of the reeds. Marsh Frogs were everywhere on the lily pads, until a Dice Snake swam across, causing them to disappear into the water. Lots of herons were flying around again, and we saw many more Purple Herons out here. A Savi’s Warbler was reeling from the reeds, the first of many we heard this afternoon.

Purple Heron

Purple Heron – more common in the reedier parts of the Delta

The second lake was full of Whiskered Terns, looking to nest on the floating vegetation. When a Hooded Crow flew across, they all came up en masse to mob it, and we realised just how many had been hiding there. A pair of Greylag Geese lurking in the edge of the reeds at the back had distinctive pink bills, birds of the eastern race rubirostris. We could hear a Bittern booming too.

Back along the more open Crisan channel, an obliging Black-crowned Night Heron was standing on the floating vegetation below one of the trees on the bank. We saw several more Ferruginous Ducks, mostly typically flighty, but we had a nice view of a male down on the water’s edge which lingered longer than most. On an area of open sandy shore, an adult Little Ringed Plover was keeping an eye on its already well-grown juvenile. A White-tailed Eagle flew in over the back and appeared to be coming our way before it suddenly dropped down onto the ground. We could see it was feeding on something, and was quickly surrounded by 10 Hooded Crows.

Black-crowned Night Heron

Black-crowned Night Heron – another very common species in the Delta

We continued on back past the floating hotel, and turned in down the small channel leading to Lake Iacob. There were more pelicans on the lake – with two White and two Dalmatian Pelicans on a log, giving us a nice comparison. A Garden Warbler was singing nearby and we could hear more Penduline Tits calling. As we motored back slowly along the wooded channel, a Grey-headed Woodpecker perched nicely in the tree above us. Another Pallas’s Gull flew over, much closer this time but we would still hold out for better views.

Grey-headed Woodpecker

Grey-headed Woodpecker – perched nicely in a tree above the boat

Back at the floating hotel, we sat out on the deck to compile the list for the day. We could still hear the Grey-headed Woodpecker calling away in the trees. Eastern Olivaceous and Great Reed Warblers were singing and the Savi’s Warbler was still reeling. A Bittern was booming off in the distance and a Golden Oriole was taunting us, hidden deep in the bushes. What an amazing place to be! After a delicious three course dinner of salad followed by local zander, it was time to turn in, to the sound of Fire-bellied Toads calling.

MONDAY 3RD JUNE

Before breakfast, the earlier risers gathered out on the deck. A Little Crake was calling, but hidden deep in the reeds beyond the trees on the bank. A pair of Eastern Olivaceous Warblers appeared briefly low in the branches, before making their way through to the sunny side of the trees as the early mist burned off. The Bittern was still booming and the Savi’s Warbler still reeling off in the distance. Three Pallas’s Gulls flew high over, one at a time, and the first White Pelicans flapped lazily up along the channel. A Middle Spotted Woodpecker flew past through trees opposite and while we ate breakfast, a pair of Garganey circled round over the water outside.

As we got ready to set off on the smaller boat again, we picked up a distant male Red-footed Falcon on some wires, and through the scope we could just about see its red feet and legs in the morning sunshine. As we motored slowly up the channel, there were the usual herons and egrets everywhere. A Great Bittern flew across and up the edge of the channel ahead of us, a difficult bird to see here.

When we heard Bearded Tits calling we looked over to see a family party right up in the top of the willows on the bank. Another bigger group of Bearded Tits were in the reeds on the junction of the Caraorman channel, lots of juveniles. As we stopped to look at them, one of the group noticed a male Penduline Tit feeding in the sedges right down at the front – nice to get our first good views of this species. We could hear a Reed Bunting singing, and then a pair appeared in one of the willows. The birds here are a different race to back home, tshusii, being noticeably heavier-billed.

Penduline Tit

Penduline Tit – feeding in the sedges

Continuing on to Caraorman village, a pair of Caspian Gulls were loafing on the bank and a Hoopoe was wrestling with a mole cricket as we made our way down to the small harbour. The vista here was dominated by the ruins of the old communist-era industrial sand mining site, long since abandoned. As we got out at the harbour, a juvenile Northern Wheatear was feeding in between the boats pulled up nearby. Walking down the track towards the village, we were surrounded by Bee-eaters calling and perching on the wires, nesting in the low sandy banks.

Bee-eater

Bee-eater – around the abandoned factory at Caraorman

A couple of Black-tailed Godwits were feeding in a grassy pool out where the cows were grazing. Three Red-footed Falcons were perched on the wires further down, two of the males chasing each other a little closer before landing again. It was already starting to get hot. Lots of Marsh Frogs were basking around the edge of a small pool in the sand, before hopping in as we passed, and the head of a Dice Snake appeared out of the water.

Several White Storks were on nests in the village, and one stood bill clapping and throwing its head back as two others circled over. It was eerie walking round past the huge abandoned accommodation blocks, long-since stripped of windows, doors and any other removable fittings, their roofs falling in but providing nest sites for the local Kestrels.

We continued on down the track out into the old sand pits. On the larger shallow pools here we found several Avocets and Black-winged Stilts along with more Black-tailed Godwits and a few Shelduck too. A Hobby flew over hunting dragonflies. Up on the bank of the next basin, there was pleasant breeze to stop us overheating. A single Caspian Tern was out in the middle, dwarfing the Common Terns and Whiskered Terns it was with. Through the scope, we could see its huge black-tipped red bill. A few Black-winged Stilts and Common Terns were nesting on the sandy islands.

Continuing round to the far corner, we could see a group of larger gulls loafing on the edge of the another pool. A single adult Pallas’s Gull was in with the Caspian Gulls – with its black hood, it really stood out. There were more Bee-eaters in the bushes and a male Red-backed Shrike appeared with them briefly. Then it was time to get out of the sun, so we took a short cut back to the boat. A male Northern Wheatear was singing around the abandoned factory buildings.

Wheatear

Northern Wheatear – singing around the abandoned factory

After a break for water and/or coffee back at the boat, we motored round to a former fish farm nearby. There were lots of Whiskered Terns flying round over the pools, but a group of people had set up for a picnic at the viewing platform, so we carried on down the channel. We went looking for a Penduline Tit nest. The reeds were too tall at the first site we tried, but we did see the pair of adult Penduline Tits in the trees calling. Further on, we found another nest hanging in the lowest branches of a willow, just above the reeds, an amazing construction. The remains of last year’s nest was still hanging in the branches further in. It was all quiet here though, so perhaps the female was incubating.

Continuing on, we stopped to look at a pair of Red-backed Shrikes in the bushes on the bank. An Eastern Olivaceous Warbler was singing here too, and perched up in the top of a bush for ages, being unusually obliging. Back round to Caraorman channel, a Common Cuckoo perched on the wires.

Common Cuckoo

Common Cuckoo – abundant in the Delta

As we headed back towards the floating hotel, we heard another Savi’s Warbler reeling. This one seemed to be closer, and a careful scan revealed it perched up in the reeds in full view. We stopped the boat and had a good look at this typically very elusive species. We certainly would not go hungry this week – lunch was another three courses of soup with meatballs, followed by stuffed vine leaves and a delicious traditional pudding.

Savi's Warbler

Savi’s Warbler – we had a good view of this typically elusive species

After lunch, the floating hotel was towed slowly back up to the main channel at Crisan before turning onto the course of the old Danube. Here we got back onto the smaller boat again, to head out for the afternoon. As we motored slowly along a side channel, we could hear several Golden Orioles fluting from some very tall poplars. We saw a couple flying in and out through the treetops, but you had to be quick to get on them. Both Grey-headed Woodpecker and Lesser Spotted Woodpecker were calling here too, but there was no sign of any Black Woodpeckers today.

The usual selection of herons flew out of the trees beside the channel as we passed, and a Little Bittern flew out of the reeds and alongside the boat, before crashing back in. We were still waiting for a really good view of one perched in the reeds. Turning on to Bogdaproste channel, Common Cuckoos were everywhere again. Several Hobbys zoomed in and out of the trees on the banks, and one perched up nicely.

Hobby

Hobby – perched up nicely in the trees by the boat

There were lots of Rollers here too – one pair was coming in and out of a nest hole in a tree, and another male was bringing food for the female. An Otter was floating in the channel ahead of the boat, crunching on something it had just caught. As we cut the engine, it saw us and dived.

Roller 1

Roller – we saw several pairs in the trees along the channels

The water opened out into Lake Bogdaproste, where we found a scattering of White Pelicans and Pygmy Cormorants, plus rafts of Common Pochard and Eurasian Coot. Two Black Terns flew over calling behind the boat, but disappeared away from us before we could get a good view. We could see several distant Pallas’s Gulls circling and as we motored across the lake we noticed one on the water, so we diverted over for a closer look. We got much closer before it took off – a very smart gull with its black hood and black-and-white wing tips, and multi-coloured yellow bill.

Through the channel on the far side, we found ourselves coming out into another large lake. As we were crossing, we could see some very distant Whiskered Terns hovering over an island of vegetation on the far side, and we picked up a White-winged Black Tern in with them, so we headed over for closer look. As we got nearer, we could see there were actually two White-winged Black Terns and lots of Black Terns too, at least a dozen, loafing on the floating vegetation. We had great views of one of the White-winged Black Terns dip feeding beside the boat – a real bonus, as they are not common here, with just a few pairs breeding in inaccessible areas. All the terns then took off, and flew round over the boat.

Black Tern 1

Black Tern – breeds fairly commonly in the Delta

White-winged Black Tern

White-winged Black Tern – the rarest of the three ‘marsh terns’ in the Delta

Continuing on to the next lake, a pair of rubirostris Greylag Geese swam across in front of the boat with four goslings. An amazing number of Whiskered Terns, probably at least 150 pairs, were starting to nest on carpet of floating vegetation here. We sailed along a channel through the middle, and had amazing views of them flying all round the boat, calling noisily. What an experience! A Hooded Crow flew over, and was immediately chased by a horde of Whiskered Terns. It made repeated visits, looking for eggs. Two Black-necked Grebes swam along the channel ahead of us.

Whiskered Tern 2

Whiskered Tern – nest-building on the floating vegetation on the lakes

Whiskered Tern 1

Whiskered Tern – amazing close views as we sailed across the lake

As we sailed back through the lakes, there were lots of Great Cormorants nesting in the surrounding trees. One tree on the edge of the reeds was full of cormorants of two species, Great and Pygmy Cormorants side by side, so we could really appreciate the size difference. Another Pallas’s Gull was swimming ahead of us on the water, and allowed us to approach closer still before it finally took off and flew round past us. Then we headed back to meet the floating hotel which was moored on a different channel nearby.

Pallas's Gull

Pallas’s Gull – we came across several adults out on the larger lakes

After a break to freshen up, we met up on deck to do the day’s list. A group of eight White Pelicans was loafing and preening on a log by the boat, Whiskered Terns and Marsh Harriers were flying round, another Savi’s Warbler was reeling in the distance, and several Great Reed Warblers were singing in the reeds nearby. After dinner of salad, breaded chicken and local cake, we retired to a deafening chorus of Marsh Frogs outside. Another amazing location and a privilege to be able to spend the night out here again.

TUESDAY 4TH JUNE

Up on the deck before breakfast, we spotted a White-tailed Eagle which had obviously roosted in a tree a short way back along the channel. Three Black Terns patrolled up and down the channel past us and we could hear Bearded Tits and Penduline Tit calling from the reeds, and the Savi’s Warbler was still reeling.

After breakfast, on the smaller boat we headed down to look at the White-tailed Eagle. It eventually took off, and flew back upstream, where it caught a fish and landed on the floating vegetation nearby to eat it. We turned round and motored back and had a great view of it feeding, before it eventually flew again.

White-tailed Eagle

White-tailed Eagle – caught a fish just after breakfast

Continuing on along the channel, we saw the usual selection of herons, cormorants, Red-necked Grebes and Ferruginous Ducks – amazing that these species had become so commonplace after just a couple of days here!

Ferruginous Duck

Ferruginous Duck – a common sight out in the Delta

On the next channel, there were more trees either side, with several Lesser Whitethroats and Blackcaps singing. A Middle Spotted Woodpecker called and a Grey-headed Woodpecker flew across and perched in a dead willow, the first of several we would see today. Once again, there were plenty of Cuckoos, Rollers and Kingfishers, with one of the latter perching up nicely as we passed.

We came out into a more open agricultural area. Several Western Yellow Wagtails flew up calling and one perched on the top of a dead stem. With its dark grey head and white supercilium it was a ‘dombrowskii’, a hybrid form of Black-headed and Blue-headed Wagtails, a speciality of Romania. A little further on, a Cattle Egret was standing on the grassy bank, the first we had got a good look at – they are not very common here.

Cattle Egret

Cattle Egret – uncommon in the Delta

A female Red-footed Falcon was perched in a willow right above the channel, so we stopped the boat for a look. It was perched just above our heads, staring down at us, and then a male came up off a nest in the tree nearby. The male flew round calling, so we backed off, and watched as the female returned to the nest. We saw several more Red-footed Falcons as we motored along this stretch of channel.

Red-footed Falcon 1

Red-footed Falcon – the female perched in the trees above us

Red-footed Falcon 2

Red-footed Falcon – the male came up off the nest and flew round

Everyone also finally got a look at a Golden Oriole, albeit just in flight, as one came out of the trees and headed away down the channel. Further on, a shrike in the willows was hidden from view at first, but when it finally flew up into the top, we could see it was a Lesser Grey Shrike, its black mask extending over the top of its bill and with a pink flush to the breast. It flew round the back of the trees and we noticed there were now two perched up together in a bush, a pair. Several Grass Snakes and Dice Snakes swam across the channel as we motored on.

There was a large area of reeds on the right of the channel and lots of Glossy Ibises and Purple Herons were flying round as we passed. When we came to a more open area of short wet grass, we counted at least 80 Great White Egrets in one big group, feeding. There were lots of White Storks here too, plus the usual Grey Herons and Little Egrets. We turned onto another channel at the far side of this field and headed out across the meadows where lots of horses and cattle were grazing. A pair of Hoopoes on the bank, flew off ahead of us. A pair of European Stonechat perched on some wires. A couple more Western Yellow Wagtails flew up, one another ‘dombrowskii’ and one a normal Black-headed Wagtail.

Great White Egret

Great White Egret – another common heron in the Delta

The channel disappeared into some dense trees. Another Grey-headed Woodpecker flew across and perched up nicely, but a couple of Lesser Spotted Woodpeckers were typically more elusive, just heard calling. Blackcaps and Garden Warblers were singing. A succession of Black-crowned Night Herons and Grey Herons flew out of the bushes ahead of us.

We had our coffee break as we sailed down here before, at the end, we came out into a huge open lake. We were closer to the main White Pelican breeding site here, a restricted area, but we could see several hundred circling in the distance. There were just a few on the lake here though, along with two Dalmatian Pelicans. Apart from that, all we could find here were a rather distant Pallas’s Gull, a distant White-tailed Eagle, and a distant Little Bittern which flew across. The next lake had a similar variety of birds.

Taking the sinuous Eracle channel back, one of the group spotted a Black Stork circling high over the reeds to one side, a new bird for the trip. As if that wasn’t good enough, we had just started moving again when someone else spotted an owl in the trees. We turned back and found a Long-eared Owl staring back out at us – a very good spot as we motored past! As we pulled up towards the bank, a second Long-eared Owl flew out of the trees.

Long-eared Owl

Long-eared Owl – well spotted by a member of the group in the trees

As we continued on along the channel, it clouded over, and we could hear a thunderstorm away to our left. We turned into a small lake, covered in lily pads, where at least twelve Black Terns were dipping down to the vegetation with all the Whiskered Terns. There were several Black-necked Grebes here too. It started spitting with rain now, and continued on and off as we made our way back to the floating hotel for lunch. It felt much cooler too. At least the local weather forecast promised us that the rain would end in precisely 23 minutes!

After lunch and a short break, it had indeed stopped raining as forecast, so we headed out again on the small boat, through various small channels. A smart male Marsh Harrier circled low over. A Purple Heron flew across with a Grass Snake in its bill. A Savi’s Warbler was reeling and when we got out of the small channel we were in and it opened out, we found it perched high on a dead reed stem. Along the next channel, with lots of trees either side, a Thrush Nightingale was singing from deep in cover.

We came out on the Stipoc channel, by an old fish farm which has now been converted into agricultural land (but would make a fantastic nature reserve!). A couple of Stock Doves were on the wires by the farm buildings and a liberal scattering of Rollers were then on the wires all the way down. Several Red-footed Falcons hovered out over the open grassland. A Corn Bunting sang from the top of a bush on the bank on one side and a Sedge Warbler sand from the reeds on the other. We stopped to look at a European Pond Terrapin which was basking on a log in an area of pondweed and realised there were several more lurking in the weed nearby.

European Pond Terrapin

European Pond Terrapin – several were in a weedy along the channel

There was an area of open water and wet grass on the other side of the channel. A couple of small flocks of White Pelicans were swimming in the water and lots of Great White Egrets, Little Egrets, Glossy Ibises and a single Cattle Egret were feeding in the wet grass. Two Green Sandpipers flew round calling, and landed in the vegetation. Four Black-tailed Godwits were feeding here too.

Two Western Yellow Wagtails flew up from the grass, one an obvious ‘dombrowskii’, but the other looked like it might be a Black-headed Wagtail until we got better look. Then we could see it had some grey on the nape, and a small amount of white in the supercilium. The Western Yellow Wagtails here are a real minefield of different hybrid forms!

Lesser Grey Shrike

Lesser Grey Shrike – perched in the willows above the channel

Further on, another Lesser Grey Shrike was perched up in the top of a willow overhanging the channel. Two Golden Orioles flew across over the reeds, across the channel ahead of us and up into the trees the other side. A Musk Rat swam across in front of us, but dived and must have resurfaced in the reeds. Two Hobbys and another female Red-footed Falcon were perched in the trees as we made our way over to Lake Furtuna.

As we came out into the huge open lake, a White-tailed Eagle was down in the reeds on the edge of the water on one side. We started to head over towards it, but it was chased off by a Hooded Crow before we got there. We could see lots of White Pelicans gathered over the far side so we decided to head over that way instead. They were loafing on islands of reed and logs, several immatures, but including several breeding adults with orange facial skin and bump on the forehead.

White Pelicans 2

White Pelicans – there were lots loafing around on Lake Furtuna this evening

There were several Black-necked Grebes with the Great Crested Grebes over by the reeds and Pygmy Cormorants flying back and forth. The channel the other side was absolutely covered with Mayflies low over the water, but others were also flying round, providing food for the Black-headed Gulls and Whiskered Terns which were hawking up and catching them.

Pygmy Cormorant 2

Pygmy Cormorant – with a distinctive flight silhouette

The floating hotel was moored over the other side of the lake and when we got back there we could hear a Lesser Spotted Woodpecker calling in the trees nearby and a Little Bittern was hiding in the reeds. We watched the sun set with White Pelicans swimming past outside over dinner.

WEDNESDAY 5TH JUNE

Up on the deck before breakfast this morning, it was a stunning view with the early light out on the lake. Several White Pelicans swam past and Pygmy Cormorants and Caspian Gulls were flying around.

White Pelican

White Pelican – swimming past the floating hotel early morning

After breakfast, we could see a feeding frenzy out on the other side of the lake, so we motored over on the small boat for a closer look. There were at least 2,500 Great Cormorants and 175-200 White Pelicans. They were obviously chasing a shoal of fish across the lake, and the stragglers at the back of the flock kept flying up in smaller groups, leapfrogging the massed horde and landing again at the front. Amazing to watch!

By the time we got over, they had chased the shoal of fish across the lake and into the reeds over the far side. Some of the White Pelicans were swimming in and out of the reeds trying to find them again. About a dozen Little Egrets were waiting on the floating vegetation beside the reeds to see what might be pushed their way. Then the shoal of fish reappeared out in the middle, and everything raced back over and started feeding again, the White Pelicans in groups upending in unison.

Feeding frenzy

Feeding Frenzy – thousands of Great Cormorants and hundreds of White Pelicans

We headed back out of the lake along the channel next to where we had moored for the night. As we were motoring slowly along, we noticed a Little Bittern climb up into the top of the reeds on one side. It was promptly chased off by a second Little Bittern and we watched the two of them fly round after each other. One landed again in the top of the reeds right on the edge of the channel, where we had a great look at it, a smart male with a bright red bill, indicating it was in breeding condition. The two of them then chased round over the reeds again and disappeared back.

We were on a wide channel now, with very big mature trees on the bank on one side. We were hoping to find a Black Woodpecker along here, but the best we could manage was a Black Woodpecker nest hole in a dead tree beside the channel. The hole looked reasonably fresh, so we waited for a minute and listened, but there was no sign of any woodpeckers. Two Common Starlings were in the tree but we didn’t see them using the hole.

Further on, a family of Great Crested Grebes were in the weeds beside the channel, and we watched as the three juveniles climbed onto the back of one of the adults as we passed. Just beyond, we could see a Red-necked Grebe and a Ferruginous Duck. Two White-tailed Eagles were perched in the trees above.

Little Bittern 1

Little Bittern – with some bright red on the bill base

Another male Little Bittern flew across the channel ahead of us, and once again perched up nicely in the reeds on the far side, allowing us to get quite close. We had a good view before it flew back across the tops of the reeds, its bill bright but not quite as red as the one earlier. It already seemed like this might be the day of the Little Bittern!

There was lots of lush vegetation along the bank here and as we carried on we heard two Thrush Nightingales singing deep in cover. We stopped and listened for Black Woodpecker, but once again there was no sign. However, we did find a female Golden Oriole mobbing a Hooded Crow in a willow bush right on the edge of the water. It possibly had a nest nearby, as the male was flying in and out of the trees behind too. We drifted over and had a good view of it, finally a perched Golden Oriole!

Golden Oriole

Golden Oriole – we finally got good views of one perched

We tried another channel for woodpeckers. A Grey-headed flew over, and we heard both Great Spotted and Lesser Spotted calling, but once again there was no sign of any Black. We joined the main channel for a bit at Mila 23 before we turned onto another side channel. A Red-backed Shrike flew up into a willow on the bank, but landed out of view.

Yet another Little Bittern flew across. Out into a lake, a single Red-necked Grebe was outnumbered by all the Great Crested Grebes. An adult Black-crowned Night Heron was feeding on the lilypads on one edge, chasing frogs, but kept sinking into the vegetation when it landed. A White-tailed Eagle was perched in the distance, in the top of a dead tree beyond the lake. As we sailed through a narrow channel and out into the next lake beyond, two more Little Bitterns chased round through the tops of the reeds.

Little Bittern 2

Little Bittern – it was definitely the best morning for them today!

The next channel had more lily pads and floating vegetation either side. We had just remarked how the Squacco Herons has been outnumbered by Little Bitterns this morning, when normal service was  resumed and five Squacco Herons flew out! There were several Red-necked Grebes in the lilypads too – the first pair had the juveniles on the back of one of the adults, but swam into the reeds as we approached. The second pair were much more obliging, and stayed lurking in amongst the lilypads as we passed.

Red-necked Grebe 2

Red-necked Grebe – in the lilypads as we sailed past

A smart male Red-footed Falcon was perched in a tree in some dead branches just above the channel, and stared down as we passed right underneath. We had a great view, slaty grey with red ‘trousers’, bright red legs and feet and red cere and eye ring. Stunning! As we made our way back round to the floating hotel, a female Red-footed Falcon was perched in another tree, rather pale buff below and with brown wings, presumably a young bird in its 2nd calendar year.

Red-footed Falcon 3

Red-footed Falcon – perched in a dead tree above the channel

Back at the floating hotel, our stay in the Delta was unfortunately coming to an end. Up on deck before we set off on the journey back, two more Little Bitterns chased each other round an island of reeds in the middle of the junction between two channels. It really had been a day for them! As we set off on board the hotel, past the reeds where they had landed, one flew out and across the channel on the other side. We scanned the reeds for the other one but all we could find was a Great Reed Warbler feeding down at the base of the reeds.

As we motored back, we would be passing the White-tailed Eagle nest we had visited on Sunday. We were just coming up towards the eerie when suddenly one of the adults flew out of the trees right beside the boat, before circling round over the trees where the nest was. We slowed down to have a look at the nest, but the two youngsters had climbed up into the tree above and were half hidden in the leaves.

We didn’t have a chance to look at them though because, just at that moment, a Black Woodpecker called in the trees right by the nest. We glimpsed it dropping down through the branches, but we were going away all the time and not everyone got onto it. Then it flew out, right past us up on the top deck, and landed in the top of a dead tree just ahead. We had a good view of it now, its red crown catching the light as it turned, before it flew on. A great way to finish our visit to the Delta!

Black Woodpecker

Black Woodpecker – just as we were sailing back out of the Delta

We retired inside for lunch – soup with meatballs, vegetable stew, followed by apple strudel. It was a slow journey back on the floating hotel, so we relaxed on deck listening to all the birds singing in the lush trees along Mila 36 –  a Thrush Nightingale and lots of Common Nightingales, Eastern Olivaceous Warblers, Common Redstarts, a couple of Collared Flycatchers. Several Great Spotted Woodpeckers were seen, but Middle Spotted and more Lesser Spotted Woodpeckers were only heard. Kingfishers zipped back and forth calling.

Back out onto the main Tulcea branch of the Danube, there were more Caspian Gulls. Several Western Yellow Wagtails on the grassy bank as we approached Tulcea looked like ‘dombrowskii’ again. We spent our last night on the boat in the harbour, with a delicious dinner of the local speciality, tochitura.

THURSDAY 6TH JUNE

We were up early, and after breakfast said our goodbyes to the floating hotel. As we drove west out of Tulcea, a Glossy Ibis was feeding in the plastic rubbish along the shore of a lake. In the villages, we saw White Storks on their nests as we passed. Out into more open country, there were Bee-eaters flying around the old terraces in the grassy fields. Our first stop was near Somova.

As we got out of the bus, a male Red-backed Shrike was perched in the top of an oak tree. A large flock of Common Swifts circled high overhead, a few Sand Martins with them. We started to walk up along the track towards the trees but hadn’t got very far when a male Levant Sparrowhawk flew over. We watched as it circled up high with the Swifts.

Levant Sparrowhawk 1

Levant Sparrowhawk – this male flew over first thing this morning

In the open woodland, a Hoopoe was calling and several Golden Orioles were fluting. We had brief views of both as they flew round. A woodpecker called, and flew across, landed on the trunk of an oak tree. We walked over to try to get a look at it and confirmed it was a Syrian Woodpecker. We watched it repeatedly dropping down to the ground, then flying back up to the trunk.

A little further on, another Levant Sparrowhawk, this time a female, flew up from the ground and landed in another tree. We had a great view of it in the scope – we could see its gular stripe and more heavily barred underparts than the male.

Levant Sparrowhawk 2

Levant Sparrowhawk – this female flew up into the trees

It was getting hot now, a good time for raptors. First, three Common Buzzards circled up over a distant ridge, and were joined by a Marsh Harrier. Then a Booted Eagle came up, followed by couple of Honey Buzzards. All were rather distant, but thankfully shortly afterwards, a Booted Eagle and a Honey Buzzard appeared much closer, over the trees, along with a Hobby.

Several Sousliks (aka European Ground Squirrels) appeared in the short grass before disappearing down into their burrows. Lots of grasshoppers and moths came up from the vegetation as we walked through, along with Silver-studded Blues and a couple of Lesser Spotted Fritillaries. A small group of Hawfinches flew over calling. We met the bus again down by the road further on, and stopped for a cold drink. A flock of White Pelicans were circling up in the distance beyond the ridge. Another male Levant Sparrowhawk flew over with a lizard in its talons.

Souslik

Souslik – there were several in the short grass

Our next stop was at the monastery at Celtic Dere. A couple of male Red-backed Shrikes were around the gardens and farmyard by the parking area. We took the track up to the old orchard, where a Turtle Dove was purring and an Icterine Warbler was singing in the trees.

Red-backed Shrike

Red-backed Shrike – a male, one of several at Celic Dere

Several Golden Orioles flew back and forth over the opening clearing, including a stunning golden male. Lots of Hawfinches zipped over in ones and twos, calling. On the edge of the wood over on the far side, a Black Redstart and a Spotted Flycatcher were feeding, dropping down from the trees to the grass below.

A Steppe Buzzard flew over – different to the Common Buzzards we had seen earlier, with a rather pale rufous tail, dark rusty body and underwing coverts, prominent clean white bases to the flight feathers with a well-marked black trailing edge.

Steppe Buzzard

Steppe Buzzard – different to the Common Buzzards we saw

Walking through the trees on one side, we came out into another clearing by the stream, where a Nuthatch was calling. We followed the track here up and into the wood. A striking longhorn beetle was in the middle of the track and when we stopped to look at it, we could hear a Red-breasted Flycatcher singing a little further on. It was very active, constantly changing perch, and hard to follow at times in all the trees. Eventually it came out closer to the track, and everyone got a better look at it. There were lots of Icterine Warblers calling and singing in the trees too, but they were very hard to see high in the branches.

Red-breasted Flycatcher

Red-breasted Flycatcher – this male was singing in the trees

As we walked back down the track, we finally got good views of a pair in the trees over the path. A Hawfinch flew in and perched briefly on a branch and a Wood Warbler was singing deep in the wood. A family of Marsh Tits worked their way through the trees beside the path. We made our way back out of the trees. A Wryneck had been seen earlier by another group up along the edge of the stream so we walked up to look for it. There was no sign of it, but we decided to stop here for lunch and the minibus drove over to join us.

Just as lunch was set out, a Middle Spotted Woodpecker called in the tree right over the picnic table. We had to take a few steps back to see it, feeding high on the trunk. While we were watching the woodpecker, the Wryneck called once from the same tree. We didn’t see it fly out, but despite looking from all round the tree there was no further sign of it.

Middle Spotted Woodpecker

Middle Spotted Woodpecker – feeding in the tree above us while we were having lunch

Over lunch, there were Greenfinches and Goldfinches coming down to drink in the streak. Another flock of White Pelicans and another Booted Eagle, this time a pale phase, circled up over the ridge beyond. A young Long-legged Buzzard was chased by two Steppe Buzzards over the clearing.

After lunch, we had a longer drive over to the Macin Mountains. There were lots of White Stork nests in the villages on the way, and several Rollers and Bee-eaters on the wires by the road. We eventually turned off the road and up along a rough track. There were a few Corn Buntings on the wires but pride of place went to a smart male Black-headed Bunting here too. They are scarce here, so always a good bird to catch up with, and this one posed nicely as we pulled up in the minibus alongside it.

Black-headed Bunting

Black-headed Bunting – this smart male was on the wires by the track

There were a few Rollers in the trees and on the wires too, and a Short-toed Lark flew up from a field of sunflowers as we passed.

Roller 2

Roller – there were one or two on the wires too

We parked opposite a quarry. As we got out of the bus, a pair of Crested Larks flew in and one of them perched up nicely nearby. We walked over through the grass towards the quarry, flushing lots of grasshoppers, moths and butterflies as we walked. A female Pied Wheatear appeared on the rocks in the grass and stayed just long enough for us to get a quick look at it, before it flew back up into the quarry. Scanning the rock faces, we found several smart black and white male Pied Wheatears and we had a look at them in the scope. An Ortolan Bunting was singing, and we picked up a couple of males distantly on the rocks. A Northern Wheatear flew in too.

We could hear a Common Rock Thrush singing, but couldn’t see it at first. As we scanned the rock faces looking for it, we did find a Long-legged Buzzard on a nest. Then the Rock Thrush flew in over the top of the quarry and landed on the rocks on the top ridge. It flew up singing a few times, gliding round with its wings and rusty tail fanned. It was very active, constantly flying around the quarry, the white patch on its back really standing out when it turned and caught the sun.

It was a hot afternoon, so we walked back to the minibus for a drink of cold water and then stopped in the next village for an ice cream. Afterwards, we headed out onto an area of steppe. It didn’t take long to find an Isabelline Wheatear perched on bush. We stopped and got out, and realised there were several more here too. We got one in the scope, perched on the top of a ridge. Others were feeding in the short grass or occasionally hovering up singing.

Isabelline Wheatear

Isabelline Wheatear – common out in the steppe grassland

We had a brief glimpse of a Tawny Pipit, but couldn’t refind it, despite walking round through grass where it had been. A Short-toed Lark fluttered singing high in the sky, and one or two Turtle Doves flew over. A Spur-thighed Tortoise appeared on top of the bank where the Isabelline Wheatear had been earlier, but disappeared surprisingly quickly into a hole. Finally the Tawny Pipits showed themselves. Two chased each other round just behind us, and one landed on the same grassy bank, where we got it in the scope. Another two then appeared on the other side of the track and then, as we got back into the bus, one was quite close by in the grass.

We had heard a thunderstorm building away in the distance, and could see the rain now lashing down over the hills. It was a long drive back to Tulcea, and we caught the edge of the rain on our way. But it was dry back in Tulcea as we checked into our guesthouse for the night.

FRIDAY 7TH JUNE

It was another early start, to try to beat the heat of the day, but it was already getting quite warm as we arrived on the edge of Babadag Forest. The minibus dropped us off and we walked down a track through the scrubby woodland.

There were lots of butterflies out in the sunshine – Cardinal and Silver-washed Fritillaries, Ilex Hairstreak, Silver-studded and Green-underside Blues – and loads of dragonflies – mostly Lesser Emperor and Norfolk Hawker.

Ilex Hairstreak

Ilex Hairstreak – one of several butterflies seen this morning

We found several Spur-thighed Tortoises in the grass, and lizards including Snake-eyed (European Copper) Skink and Balkan Wall Lizard.

Spur-thighed Tortoise

Spur-thighed Tortoise – a young one, in the Babadag Forest

There were not many birds active now – a Chiffchaff, a Lesser Whitethroat, a Blackcap and one or two Common Nightingales singing, and a few commoner tits. We had really come to try to see Sombre Tit and we thought our luck was in when we heard one call close by. We stood and listened but it didn’t call again and disappeared deeper into the scrub. Despite looking, we couldn’t find it again. We carried on along the track, where several Turtle Doves were purring and Golden Orioles were fluting, with one or two of each seen flying back and forth.

The raptors were starting to circle up now that it was getting hot, Booted Eagles and a Common Buzzard. As we got out of the trees and into a more open area, we heard a Levant Sparrowhawk call and looked back to see two displaying over the trees. We met the minibus here, down by the road. As we stopped for a drink of water, we spotted a couple of Isabelline Wheatears perched up on small dead stems sticking up out of the short grass. We could hear Tawny Pipit and Ortolan Bunting singing too. There were more butterflies out here too, in particular several striking black and white Great Banded Grayling.

Great Banded Grayling

Great Banded Grayling – common in the open grass on the edge of the forest

Back in the minibus, we drove over to a track across a rough area of open ground, where we found three more Turtle Doves, plus several more Isabelline and Northern Wheatears. We stopped to look at a Corn Bunting in the top of a bush and it was joined by a male Spanish Sparrow. The track continued over to the edge of some open woodland, where we stopped and got out for a walk.

A Red-backed Shrike was in the bushes right next to where we parked, and there were several Ortolan Buntings singing as we walked up the hill. A Woodlark flew over singing, and several more came up out of the short grass, but there was no sign of any Sombre Tits here.

Ortolan Bunting

Ortolan Bunting – this one perched in the top of an oak tree singing

We walked back to the minibus, stopping on the way to look at an Ortolan Bunting which perched in the top of an oak tree. A Middle Spotted Woodpecker was calling in the trees too. We were back at the minibus and jst about to get back on when we heard a Sombre Tit calling from somewhere in the trees nearby. We walked into through trees, and played cat and mouse for several minutes, before we eventually tracked them down. A pair of Sombre Tits, feeding quietly in the trees, right within sight of the bus!

There had been thunderstorms audible off in the distance for a while, but now unfortunately it started to rain here, so we dashed back and into the minibus. It was a long drive south to Vadu, and it was raining on and off for much of the journey – not what we had been forecast. When we arrived in the village, we decided to stop for lunch first and it was a good call as it stopped raining and started to brighten up.

After lunch, it was hot and sunny again as we headed back to an area of pools we had passed on the edge of the village. As we got out of the bus again, there were  several Bee-eaters on the wires. We could hear Red-footed Falcons calling in the trees across the road, and we could just see a nest up in one of the trees.

Turning our attention to the pools, we scanned round the edge where there were lots of Little Gulls. We counted 44, mostly young, 1st summer birds. A pair of Pied Avocets, several Green Sandpipers and a pair of Little Ringed Plovers were on the shore too, along with a single smart summer plumage Little Stint. There were Shelducks on the brackish pool at the front, and several Great Crested Grebes and Ferruginous Ducks on the larger fishing pond behind.

Little Gull

Little Gulls – we counted 44 around the first pool we looked at

A Marsh Harrier quartered over the reeds on one edge and, as we walked down the hill and round the pools, three Red-footed Falcons and a Hobby flew overhead. At the back of the pools, we found two different waders in the far corner, two Marsh Sandpipers in breeding plumage, late migrants through here. We had a good view of them through the scope.

Marsh Sandpiper

Marsh Sandpiper – one of two still at Vadu

We cut back round to the road on the far side of the village, where we met the minibus again. After a quick drink, we continued on along the road past the old abandoned communist-era factory buildings. We found several pairs of Northern Wheatears in the sandy grassland, with at least two feeding streaky juveniles. Then once we got to the damper areas with reeds, there were lots of Western Yellow Wagtails in a bewildering array of different forms, a couple that looked good for pure Black-headed Wagtail, but mainly ‘dombrowskii’ types of varying hues, and even one ‘xanthophrys’ with a black head and yellow supercilium.

Two Collared Pratincoles appeared, hawking high over the reeds, with one at one point coming quite close overhead, rather like a cross between a tern and a swallow. A little further on, three were loafing down on the short grass where the cattle were grazing. Several Spoonbills and pelicans circled over too.

Collared Pratincole

Collared Pratincole – hawking for insects above the reeds

Our main target here was Paddyfield Warbler, but we weren’t sure how easy it would be to find one in the heat of the afternoon. At first, we found nothing but Eurasian Reed Warblers, singing or collecting food. There were Great Reed Warblers singing too, with one or two seen flying across over the tops of the reeds. We heard Bearded Tits pinging and saw several zooming back and forth. And there were Reed Buntings here as well.

Then, as we walked slowly along the road, we heard a Paddyfield Warbler singing further up. We hurried along, and found it perched briefly on a stem in the top of the reeds. For those who were there quickly, it was a good view, but all too quickly it disappeared down into the reeds. Several of the group had gone back in the bus to use the facilities in the village, so had missed it. It was still singing but with a bit of a breeze, it was keeping well down in the reeds most of the time. We stuck at it though, and eventually it made another appearance for those who didn’t see it first time. The Black Sea coast of Romania is the westernmost point of the breeding range of Paddyfield Warbler, so you need to see it here, unless you want to go further east!

Paddyfield Warbler

Paddyfield Warbler – we found one singing in the reeds

There were some large sandy banks surrounding some wet basins a little further on, so we walked up for a look. On the first, hundreds of pairs of Common Terns were nesting. Two Little Gulls were in with them, along with several Common Redshanks round the edge of the islands. The basin on the other side of the road was deeper and less productive. Four Spoonbills and a Grey Heron flushed from the brackish marsh on the edge of the reeds on the way, and a Purple Heron flew over.

It is a long drive own to the coast even from here, and we had one more area we wanted to visit this afternoon, so we decided to head back, with a quick stop on the way for ice cream. We made our way over to an agricultural area, passing through another band of rain on the way, and turned onto a newly tarmacked road through the fields. A Calandra Lark circled over a rough field of grass and oats, just the bird we had come to see, but dropped down out of view.

We continued on slowly up the road and stopped by a track. Several Western Yellow Wagtails were bathing down in a puddle and two Black-headed Buntings perched in the tops of some young sunflowers in the edge of a field singing. A Red Fox walked down the track towards us.

We could see another Calandra Lark standing in the middle of the road further up. It seemed to like the new tarmac, as a couple of times it flew round but came back to the road. We drove slowly up towards it, but we were looking through the windscreen and into the sun so it was not going to be the best of views. The Calandra Lark eventually flew up, but circled round and landed again on the road behind. Now we got out and had a look at it through the scope. There was a lot of heat haze from the tarmac, but it helpfully decided to fly up and land much closer to us, where we could see its big bill and black neck patches.

Calandra Lark

Calandra Lark – kept coming back to the new tarmac

Eventually it flew again, right past us, flashing the broad white trailing edge to its wings and black underwings, before dropping down in the middle of a field of wheat. There were several other Calandra Larks flying round over the fields and several Skylarks here too.

Two Long-legged Buzzards circled over while we were standing here. Then we looked up across the fields to see a Montagu’s Harrier quartering along a ridge. It had been sunny, but now it started to spit with rain again. We had been very lucky dodging the showers this afternoon – we hadn’t been caught by the rain at all while we were out – and it was time to head back anyway now, with a long drive to Tulcea ahead.

Long-legged Buzzard

Long-legged Buzzard – one of two which circled over

Back at the guesthouse, after a break to freshen up and start packing, we gathered for our final dinner, which was finished off with a celebratory cake prepared by the guesthouse to mark the end of our visit.

SATURDAY 8TH JUNE

After a more leisurely breakfast, we checked out of the guesthouse and set off on the long drive back to Bucharest. We had a quick stop on the way at an area of marshes for Ruddy Shelduck.

As soon as got out of minibus, we saw one flying across over the water down below the hillside. There was a big colony of Sand Martins by the road, and several Bee-eaters with them. Two Rollers flew past and a Cuckoo came over calling. It was great we had seen so many Common Cuckoos on this trip – mostly in the Delta, but we had seen at least one every day so it was good to keep up the record. Further down the grassy hillside, a Hoopoe was feeding out on the grass with a single Isabelline Wheatear nearby.

We walked down the path to where we could get a better view out over the marshes and found at least 9 adult Ruddy Shelducks here, including a pair with several shelducklings. There were a few waders out on the marshes too. Several Black-winged Stilts and Lapwings were out in the middle, and two Green Sandpipers were down on a muddy patch on the near edge. Four Collared Pratincoles flew high overhead calling. In the distance, we could see lots of White Storks circling over the hillside beyond, and a Spoonbill flew in.

All too quickly it was sadly time to move on again. We had another break for an early lunch at the filling station back in Slobozia, where a Lesser Whitethroat was singing in the bushes beyond the back fence today.

Then it was on to Bucharest. We got to the airport in good time, only to find our flight was delayed by 20 minutes, but we were soon on our way back to Luton. We sailed through passport control, but then had to wait almost an hour for bags. Welcome back to the UK! Then we bid our farewells and headed off home.

It had been an unforgettable experience – with lots of good birds, good food and good company. If you would be interested in joining us on our next visit to Romania, please get in touch.

28th Apr-4th May 2019 – Northern Greece & Lake Kerkini

A week-long International Tour to Northern Greece and Lake Kerkini, organised together with our friends from Oriole Birding. It is a great destination for eastern migrants and south-eastern Mediterranean specialities. We had generally good weather with temperatures of 20-25C, nice birding conditions.

SUNDAY 28TH APRIL

Our plane departed on time and it was a smooth journey from Gatwick to Thessaloniki. Our first birds in Greece were the Jackdaws and House Sparrows around the airport terminal building, with several Tree Sparrows by the car hire office while we waited to do the paperwork for the minibus. It was just over an hour’s drive north to Lake Kerkini, but once we got out of the city we started to see a few more birds, with hirundines including our first Red-rumped Swallows, and raptors including Common Buzzard and Kestrel. The villages closer to the lake produced White Storks, with some on nests atop the telegraph posts.

When we got to the lake, we stopped on the southern embankment by the dam. Several Common Nightingales were singing in the bushes nearby, which was to be a constant soundtrack to the next few days, a Golden Oriole was fluting nearby and a Common Cuckoo was calling. An Eastern Olivaceous Warbler was chattering too, sounding a little like a Reed Warbler, and we eventually got a view of it skulking in the bushes.

There were several Grey Herons around the shore, and our first Squacco Heron of the trip flew in and landed by the rocks. A Great Cormorant was stretching its wings on a post and a Dalmatian Pelican flew in high over the dam. There were lots of gulls around the lake, mainly Yellow-legged Gulls of various ages, but we also found a single 2cy Caspian Gull out on the water, its distinctive snouty look, with a long, thin parallel-sided bill, giving its identity away. A group of Common Terns was gathered on the line of fishing net posts just offshore.

Scanning the surrounding hills, we picked up four birds circling high over the fields on the far side of the lake, Collared Pratincoles hawking for insects. They were distant at first but then turned and headed our way, flying high overhead and off to the south. Then our host, Stelios, turned up with our picnic lunch.

Collared Pratincole

Collared Pratincole – four flew over the dam while we had lunch

After lunch, we drove slowly up the western shore of the lake. Common Nightingales were singing everywhere in the scrub, and out into the more open cultivated areas, they were replaced by Corn Buntings. We stopped at Korifoudi, where a Crested Lark was feeding on a dusty track. A large flock of Western Yellow Wagtails was feeding around the feet of a herd of buffalo out on the short grass. They were mostly Black-headed Wagtails, we could hear their distinctive raspy calls, plus several Blue-headed Wagtails. As the buffalo came up to the road, the wagtails defected to a herd of cattle further back on the lake shore.

Two Woodchat Shrikes were perched out on the scattered bushes in the meadows and another two appeared by the road. We watched them chasing each other round in the bush, stopping to bob their heads in display. There were lots of Little Egrets along the lake shore and distantly out on the water beyond, we could see a huge feeding frenzy of cormorants and pelicans.

Scanning the surrounding hills, we picked up first a Booted Eagle circling high, and then a Black Stork drifting along the ridge. We heard Bee-eaters calling high overhead. There were several butterflies here too, including lots of Painted Ladys, several Clouded Yellows, and a smart Scarce Swallowtail feeding on some thistles by the road.

Scarce Swallowtail

Scarce Swallowtail – feeding on thistles by the road

We tried to drive on, but there were lots of distractions – first we heard a Great Reed Warbler singing in a small clump of reeds, but it was keeping well down. Then a little further on, we spotted two Lesser Spotted Eagles down in the meadow next to the road, which flew up into the trees as we approached. We stopped to get them in the scopes. Another Great Reed Warbler was singing in some reeds nearby, but flew out as we walked over and headed over to another clump further back. Three Whinchats were out in the grass too.

We only managed to go another short distance before we stopped again to look at our first Pygmy Cormorant perched on a dead branch in the edge of the lake. A Wood Sandpiper was feeding in the shallows here, just below the road.

Pygmy Cormorant 1

Pygmy Cormorant – our first of the trip, on the west shore of the lake

Eventually, we made it up to the hotel to check in. After a short break to settle in, we met again in the parking area where a Common Nightingale was singing (we would hear it here every day, usually in the same tree). There were also several Tree Sparrows here, and a Lesser Whitethroat rattling in a nearby garden which flew up into the top of a tree. A pair of Red-rumped Swallows and a pair of Pallid Swifts circled round overhead with the other hirundines.

We drove down to the harbour at Mandraki. The water here is quite shallow, particularly this year with the lake level lower than normal, and there were so many birds we didn’t know where to look first. There were herons everywhere, lots of Grey Herons and a huge number of Great White Egrets. A Purple Heron was tucked down in the grass on the edge of the lake, then six circled up together. A big group of Glossy Ibis was feeding actively further back in the shallow water, and when they flew up and came in past us we counted at least sixty. Squacco Herons were liberally scattered all around and six Black Storks circled up from the edge of the flooded forest

There were amazing numbers of Great Crested Grebes out on the water, with most paired up, and several pairs displaying. In amongst the weedy vegetation in the water, we found several Garganey and a single drake Ferruginous Duck: we could see its distinctive white iris. A few Greylag Geese required a closer look here, pink-billed birds of the eastern race rubirostris.

We could see lots of pelicans out on the nesting islands and around the edge of the lake further back. Beyond them, there was a good number of Greater Flamingoes. The flooded forest was chock full of cormorants, great and small (Pygmy!). Some small groups of pelicans were fishing closer to us, and we could see a few White Pelicans in with the Dalmatians. We finished watching some nice close Dalmatian Pelicans swimming just off the jetty in lovely evening light. Then we had to tear ourselves away to get back for dinner.

Dalmatian Pelican 1

Dalmatian Pelican – in the evening light, off the harbour

On the drive back, a Hoopoe was wrestling with a large worm by the road. Back at the hotel, the resident Scops Owl was singing briefly. It went quiet when we tried to look for it, but started up again later, once it got dark. It had been a great first day, but we were tired after an early start this morning, so after a delicious dinner, we turned in.

MONDAY 29TH APRIL

A quick early walk at dawn confirmed that a male Semi-collared Flycatcher was back on territory close to where we saw one last year, so after breakfast we all went up to see it. It was very active, flitting between the plane trees, singing all the time. It seemed to be prospecting nest holes in a couple of trees – we saw it go into one and it seemed to be returning to that branch repeatedly.

Semi-collared Flycatcher

Semi-collared Flycatcher – holding territory in the trees

It was a young male with a rather restricted half collar and small double white patch over the bill, but with a large white patch at the base of the primaries and some barely visible white spots on the median coverts. It was good to see that at least one is back here again. Blackbird and Robin were also additions to the list there.

Afterwards, we headed out to one of our favourite spots, a bushy area by an overflowing water trough. It is a good area to see migrants when they are coming through but the bushes were quite quiet this morning. Perhaps birds were moving straight through and not stopping in the clear sunny weather, and some of the local breeding birds were clearly not arrived yet too. A pair of Golden Orioles perched briefly in the top of a distant dead tree and two Turtle Doves landed on the wires. A Woodchat Shrike and a Common Whitethroat were singing in the bushes and a Black Kite drifted over.

We continued on round to an area of woodland along the River Strimon floodplain. As we walked down the track, we were serenaded by Common Nightingales and lots of Marsh Frogs calling from the pools. It was starting to warm up quickly now and a Levant Sparrowhawk circled up, its rather pointed wings showing distinct blackish tips underneath, and a Lesser Spotted Eagle drifted over just above as we were watching it.

Levant Sparrowhawk 1

Levant Sparrowhawk – showing its pointed wings with blackish tips

The woodpeckers were rather quiet today, probably a combination of the heat of the day and the time of year. We did find a black-and-white woodpecker skulking in the bottom of a thick tree close to what appeared to be a fresh hole, but when it eventually showed itself it was a Great Spotted Woodpecker. Then a little further on, we flushed a Green Woodpecker from the bushes by the track. Two Hoopoes were calling and kept flying off ahead of us. Several Spotted Flycatchers were flitting about in the trees and having heard it calling, a grey male Cuckoo flew across over the open fields followed by a rusty-coloured ‘hepatic’ female, the first of several we would see today.

There were lots of butterflies out in the sunshine along the track or out in the grass. A rather tatty looking Southern Festoon was the highlight, but we also found a couple of Grizzled Skippers, plenty of Queen of Spain Fritillaries and Clouded Yellows, and a few Common Blues. There were dragonflies here too – lots of Scarce Chasers and one or two Hairy Dragonflies down by the water. A Grass Snake curled up on the edge of the path quickly slithered in to the undergrowth as we approached.

Dalmatian Pelican 2

Dalmatian Pelicans – circling up as it warmed up

Small groups of pelicans starting to circle up over towards the lake, looking for thermals to give them lift, and four Dalmatian Pelicans drifted right overhead. Then a much bigger group of White Pelicans appeared further over, towards the river, with three Dalmatians in with them, allowing us to see their very different wing patterns. A few White Storks circled up too, and a Black Stork flew across just over the tops of the trees. A Long-legged Buzzard appeared briefly over the base of the hills to the north.

Our coffee stop this morning was taken by the River Strimon. A small group of Bee-eaters was perched on the wires and bushes beside the track opposite. Two Little Ringed Plovers and a Common Sandpiper were feeding on a sandy island in the middle of the river, along with a White Wagtail. Lots of House Martins were looking to nest under the bridge and several Sand Martins were coming and going from a sandy bank in the island the other side of the bridge. After coffee, we had a quick drive a short distance up the track opposite to try to photograph the Bee-eaters.

Bee-eater 1

Bee-eater – down by the river while we stopped for morning coffee

The rest of the day would be spent on the embankment which surrounds the eastern shore of the lake. There were lots of Moorhens on the first pool, along with several European Pond Terrapins and a Purple Heron walking along the opposite bank. There are several small clumps of reeds here and we stopped to scan them, almost immediately finding a female Little Bittern on the edge of one. As we scanned further across a female Little Crake was creeping in and out of the reeds nearby. The more we looked, the more we found – in the end, we counted at least six Little Crakes, five brown females and one slaty blue-grey male, and three female Little Bitterns.

A Dice Snake was curled up just in the reeds, a Coypu was half submerged in the water, and a pair of Little Grebes was busy diving. We could hear Penduline Tits calling from the willows and bushes on the other side of the bank, and we managed a brief view of a pair in the trees, chased off by a second male.

We were rather distracted by all the activity here and eventually retreated back to the nearby picnic area for a late lunch in the shade. There were Bee-eaters everywhere, calling all around us. After lunch, we continued on slowly down the embankment. On the next few pools, we found more Purple Herons and our first Spoonbill, plus a few Pygmy Cormorants. Several Turtle Doves were flying around between the bushes out on the grass beyond.

We stopped overlooking the northern edge of the lake. There were lots of Wood Sandpipers around the margins of the grassy islands, migrants stopping off on their way north, and a single Ruff was in with them. Several Black-winged Stilts were further back. A few Common Terns and three or four darker-bellied Whiskered Terns were hawking distantly over the water. There were lots of Black-headed Gulls loafing around the water’s edge, and a single Gull-billed Tern was in with them, preening. Through the scopes, we could see its distinctive short, thick black bill.

There are not so many ducks here in the spring, but as well as a smattering of Mallards, we did find three Common Pochard on the lake. A lone Ruddy Shelduck was over on the grass in front of the flooded forest, with three Greylag Geese nearby.  What initially appeared to be a Black-headed Wagtail was feeding on the short grass just below the bank. On closer inspection, we could see it had a small trace of a white supercilium behind the eye, so it was actually a hybrid form of Yellow Wagtail, ‘superciliaris’.

Black-headed Wagtail superciliaris

Yellow Wagtail – a hybrid ‘superciliaris’ Black-headed Wagtail

Continuing on, Penduline Tits were calling all the way down the embankment but were mostly hidden in the vegetation. We pulled up at one likely looking area, where some poplar trees were overhanging a small area of reeds, and spotted a nest hanging down in amongst the leaves, suspended on one of the lower branches. Then a Penduline Tit appeared out of the reeds with a bill full of cobwebs and poplar seed, and flew up to the nest. We got out and through the scopes, we could see that the nest was an amazing structure, and quite well-built already. We watched the Penduline Tit weaving the gathered material into the structure, before it flew off back along the line of the ditch.

While we waited for it to return, a Lesser Spotted Woodpecker flew past and dropped down into the  bushes below the bank where we could hear it calling. Eventually it flew back in and landed in a bush close to where we were standing, where we got a great look at it, a male with a bright red crown.

Lesser Spotted Woodpecker

Lesser Spotted Woodpecker – a male, in the trees by the lake

There were lots more Cuckoos along here and another hepatic phase female flew in and landed in the poplars above the Penduline Tit nest, where we could get a great view of it in the scope. A Kingfisher appeared down on the edge of the ditch too. Eventually the pair of Penduline Tits returned, and we watched them gathering material down in the reeds again, before flying up to add it to the nest.

On along the bank, there were several Golden Orioles fluting in the trees but they were difficult to see with all the leaves. Out in the middle of the lake, we could see a feeding frenzy of cormorants and pelicans. There were lots of Squacco Herons down on the rocky shore below the bank as we drove past and scanning the water’s edge we found a Spur-winged Lapwing too. We stopped to look at it, but it walked on behind some bushes, so we drove on a few yards and waited at the next gap in the vegetation. After a minute or two, it duly walked back into view. They are not so common here at the lake – we normally see them down on the coast – so this was a real bonus today.

Spur-winged Lapwing

Spur-winged Lapwing – a nice surprise, down on the shore of the lake

There were one or two Eastern Olivaceous Warblers singing in the bushes beside the bank as we passed, but not as many as we might normally expect to hear. They were obviously still arriving back for the breeding season. There were several Great Reed Warblers singing too – and we eventually got a better look at one perched up in the reeds. Then a Wildcat ran along the track on the bank ahead of us, before disappearing back into the vegetation.

The embankment was closed south of Limnochori, but we were planning to come off here anyway. It was time to be heading back. We had a quick stop in the village to admire a huge White Stork nest, and timed it perfectly as the adults changed over nest duties. One flew in and the other got up and flew off, landing on a nearby telegraph post which happened to be right above us. It stood there staring down. There were lots of sparrows going in and out of the base of the stork’s nest, mostly Spanish Sparrows, with one or two House and Tree Sparrows too. A pair of Red-rumped Swallows was flying in under the eaves of a nearby house.

White Stork

White Stork – landed on a telegraph post right above us

It had been another great day, but it was time to head back to the hotel for dinner. While we were still waiting for pudding, we heard a Scops Owl singing right outside. We went out, and realised we could actually hear two. One was in a tree above the road right in front of the hotel, so we tried to see if we could find it with a torch. It was too high up and there were too many leaves on the tree now, but we eventually saw it as it flew out.

TUESDAY 30TH APRIL

With a prompt getaway after breakfast, we headed up to the village of Promachonas in the hills on the Bulgarian border. We were looking for woodpeckers, and as soon as we walked in to the wood, a Middle Spotted Woodpecker flew over the track and landed in the trees next to us . We could see its red crown and pale red undertail. As we continued deeper into the wood – two more Middle Spotted Woodpeckers appeared in the top of a tree over the path, with one singing.

We stopped when we couldn’t go any further in. We could hear a Grey-headed Woodpecker, further off, over the other side of the river, but frustratingly it kept its distance. A Semi-collared Flycatcher was singing, and we found it flitting around in a tree a little further on down the path. There were also several Blackcaps singing in the trees, and a Nuthatch appeared to be feeding young, coming in repeatedly with food. A Red Squirrel scuttled up a trunk and a Kingfisher shot past through the trees.

As we walked back, a Great Spotted Woodpecker flew in over the path calling. It landed in a tree and chased off a Starling which seemed to be prospecting a hole. We tried another path through the wood, closer to the road, where a Golden Oriole was fluting. It was a bit more open here and there were several butterflies in the dappled shade, including a Southern Festoon and a couple of Dingy Skippers. Lots of Beautiful Demoiselle damselflies were down by the river.

Southern Festoon

Southern Festoon – in the dapped shade on the edge of the wood

We had a very brief look for Masked Shrike in the quarry across the road, but there was no sign of any – perhaps they were late coming back this year? But we had run out of time, and had to get back down to the lake. Our boat trip had been organised for the afternoon, but with the forecast suggesting the wind might pick up it had been brought forward to 11am. We arrived back at the lake just in time.

As we motored out across the lake, there were lots of Great Crested Grebes on the water, and then out in the middle we found several much smaller Black-necked Grebes too. Close up, we could see their black necks and golden yellow face tufts. A flock of around twenty Collared Pratincoles flew over high.

Black-necked Grebe

Black-necked Grebe – in full breeding plumage out on the lake

More birds were gathered around the mouth of the Strimon river, where it flows into the lake. A large flock of Greater Flamingoes put their heads up and started calling as we passed. We got some much better views of both Dalmatian and White Pelicans, with several of the latter still really pink (rather than white!).

White Pelican

White Pelican – still looking rather more pink than white!

There was a nice selection of lingering winter wildfowl out here, with a few Wigeon, Gadwall and Shoveler all additions to the trip list. A tight flock of about 20 Garganey flew round and four Ferruginous Ducks were swimming in the vegetation with a few Common Pochard. Several Common Shelduck were in amongst the legs of the Flamingoes, and the Ruddy Shelduck was out here too today.

Round at the flooded forest, the low water level this year was very noticeable, with lots of the trees on dry land. Thankfully we could still get through the edge of it in the boat and it was an amazing experience! The sight, the sound and the smell. Every tree was packed full of Great Cormorants on their nests, many with well grown young.

Cormorant

Cormorant – amazing intricate plumage detail up close

In amongst them were lots of herons. We had great close up views of Black-crowned Night Herons and Squacco Herons. A few Spoonbills were on their nests close to where we were, some with young already, and we could see many more further back in the trees or flying round overhead. There were just a few Pygmy Cormorants on the outer edge of the colony.

Nigth Heron

Black-crowned Night Heron – we saw several in the trees

Spoonbill

Eurasian Spoonbill – on the nest

Pygmy Cormorant 2

Pygmy Cormorant – one of the few we got close to from the boat

We went over to look at the pelican nesting islands. The older wooden platforms were packed with Dalmatian Pelicans, including several well-grown juveniles. The stone islands were more sparsely populated, with a mixture of Dalmatian and White Pelicans on the tops.

Dalmatian Pelicans

Dalmatian Pelicans – on the old nesting platform

As we turned to head back, a lone Tufted Duck came up from the water. We hadn’t seen any marsh terns yet today, but as we motored back across the lake, we picked up a flock of around 20 way off in the distance. We headed over and could see them more clearly, before they helpfully came round for a really close pass, a mixture of 11 stunning breeding adult White-winged Black Terns and a smaller number of darker Black Terns, about 8. A great way to finish off the boat trip, which is always one of the highlights of any visit to Kerkini.

White-winged Black Tern 1

White-winged Black Terns – we came across a mixed flock on our way back

Back at the shore, it was time for lunch. We stopped just off the bank by a small poplar wood, where Golden Oriole and Green Woodpecker were calling in the trees. Several Spotted Flycatchers were flitting around in the bushes by the road and we could hear another Penduline Tit in the willows further back.

After lunch, we drove over to try the marshes by the River Strimon. A Little Ringed Plover flew up from the edge of the track as we passed and a Common Sandpiper was feeding down along the river shore. There were loads of Yellow-legged Gulls loafing on the gravel islands in the middle of the river, with one or two Caspian Gulls in with them. But as we got out to look at our first tortoise, a Spur-thighed Tortoise grazing on the grassy bank by the track, all the gulls flew up and whirled round. We had planned to walk out to marshes, but had a feeling they might be dry this year given the water levels. We met another group leaving who said they were indeed dry, so we decided to try something else instead.

Spur-thighed Tortoise

Spur-thighed Tortoise – our first tortoise of the trip

We would normally visit Vironia Quarry in the morning, before the boat trip, so we were not sure whether there would be much activity this afternoon, in the heat of the day. We walked down the hill to look at the scrub around the water troughs first, where it was pretty quiet apart from all the Nightingales and Peacocks calling at a nearby farmhouse. A Cirl Bunting was singing in the distance.

Thankfully, the quarry was more productive. As walked through the scrub up towards it, a male Cirl Bunting was feeding in the short grass beside the path. Coming out into the open, several Red-rumped Swallows and a pair of Crag Martins were hawking around the cliff face. We could hear Blue Rock Thrush singing, and found a male and female up on the rocks. When the male flew down into the top of a bush on one side, we noticed a small bird nearby – an Ortolan Bunting. We managed a good look at it through the scope before it flew out of view. Another pair of Cirl Buntings were up here too.

A Subalpine Warbler (of one of the eastern races, albistrata) started singing in the bushes behind us, so we followed it a short way as it moved back along the path. We could see it flitting around in the vegetation but it was keeping well hidden, before it flew across the path and disappeared deeper in. A big family party of Long-tailed Tits made their way through the bushes too.

Back in the quarry, a male Eastern Black-eared Wheatear was displaying up on the rock face, flying round and round in small circles, flashing it wings and white tail. It landed on a bush and we could see it was the black-eared form, with a white throat and black bandit masks. Then it flew back across the face to the other side and we could see why it was busy displaying – a female was in the bushes here too.

A Levant Sparrowhawk flashed in across the rock face, sending all the hirundines up and the causing the other birds to all start alarm calling. It disappeared into the bushes up on the rocks, before emerging again a few seconds later, flying up and over the top of the quarry. We walked on to the far side where another Eastern Black-eared Wheatear was singing, this time a black-throated male. Another pair of Cirl Buntings was feeding quietly on the edge.

Levant Sparrowhawk 2

Levant Sparrowhawk – flashed across the face of the quarry

Then it was time to go back to the hotel. We had arranged an early dinner tonight, and afterwards we headed out again. The Scops Owls were already singing intermittently by the car park but shut up before we could pin down where they were roosting. The rain clouds had been gathering over the hills and it started to spit with rain here, but thankfully it looked to still be clear down by the lake, so we headed straight over there.

We drove through a couple of villages on the way, scanning the roofs as we passed, and eventually found our first target – a Little Owl perched on the corner of low building. We stopped to watch it staring down into the grass below, occasionally looking at us with its piercing yellow eyes.

Little Owl

Little Owl – perched on a roof in one of the village

The sun was just setting, so we continued on round the lake shore. A couple of Great Reed Warblers were singing in the reeds but keeping well down again today, as loads of Spanish Sparrows flew in, presumably to roost. A Common Buzzard landed down on the shore, the other side of the road. With the clouds hanging over the hills, it seemed to be getting dark quickly tonight, so we drove back to an old quarry.

We were just in time – we hadn’t been out of the minibus for more than a minute or two when the Eagle Owl flew up from its roost site and landed on the base of a tree up on the cliff. It was still good enough light, so we could get fantastic views of it through the scopes.

Eagle Owl

Eagle Owl – came out early tonight, before it got too dark

We stayed and watched the Eagle Owl until the light faded. It was a fantastic way to end another action-packed day.

WEDNESDAY 1ST MAY

It was a noticeably cooler start to the morning and with the change in the weather last night, we thought there might be migrants in. We decided to have a look at the water trough first and spotted a male Red-backed Shrike in the bushes before we got out of the minibus. Setting up the scopes and scanning round, we found two others nearby, presumably all freshly arrived. An Eastern Olivaceous Warbler was singing, which was not here a couple of days ago. A Whinchat was out in the field beyond.

Two male Black-headed Buntings were chasing each other round and round through the bushes, presumably trying to decide who was getting the territory. They eventually settled in a bush next to the road, so we could get a good look at them – smart birds, canary yellow underneath, with a black head.

Black-headed Bunting

Black-headed Bunting – fresh in this morning

An Eastern Orphean Warbler started singing behind us, and flew over in to the same bush. We had a good view of it perched with one of the male Black-headed Buntings. One of the Red-backed Shrikes flew in too, and started flying down to catch insects on the road, and another Eastern Olivaceous Warbler started up, all in the same bush. There were obviously lots of birds freshly arrived here.

Eastern Orphean Warbler

Eastern Orphean Warbler – singing in the bushes this morning

We were heading up to the hills today, so we drove over to Sidirokastro and made our way up to the byzantine castle ruins first. As we stopped to admire the view over town and the lake in the distance beyond, a male Eastern Black-eared Wheatear was songflighting in front of us. Two Cirl Buntings flew past calling. We walked round to the other side and started scanning the crags. A pair of Blue Rock Thrush appeared distantly, and we counted at least four more Eastern Black-eared Wheatears within a few metres of each other.

Western Rock Nuthatch was our main target here and we were in luck, as one then appeared on a rock face further back. Unfortunately it flew up before we could all get onto it and disappeared. We walked over to the top of the crag opposite but there was no further sign of it. Two Linnets were flitting around on the top and a Cirl Bunting landed in the bushes right in front of us briefly. We could see yet more Blue Rock Thrushes and wheatears from here too.

As we started to walk back along the side of the castle, we scanned behind us over to where the nuthatch had been, and suddenly one appeared on some low rocks in between the crags. We got the scopes on it and realised there was a second Western Rock Nuthatch with it. We could see they were collecting something, and then they flew up into rocks out of view. One dropped down onto a branch jutting out of the crag, where it remained perched for some time, so we could get a good view in the scopes. Then one flew over and started feeding on the cliff just below the castle, where we watched it going into the cracks in the rock. It seemed to collect some food and then flew back across, made its way up the rock face and then disappeared into the same crag.

Western Rock Nuthatch

Western Rock Nuthatch – we watched them collecting food on the crags

From back at the minibus, we could see more distantly where they were going in. Over coffee, we watched the small dead branch they were using as a perch, which held alternately Western Rock Nuthatch, Blue Rock Thrush and Eastern Black-eared Wheatear! A Serin flew in calling and landed briefly nearby, but flew straight out again. Four Ravens flew over calling.

After coffee, we drove up the valley beyond the village to an old quarry. Several Red-rumped Swallows and a pair of Crag Martins were hawking round the rocks. A Subalpine Warbler started singing in the top of a tree in the valley below us.

Red-rumped Swallow 2

Red-rumped Swallow – hawking around the quarry

A Cirl Bunting was singing high on the edge of the quarry and while we were watching it, we noticed an Ortolan Bunting also singing from the top of a rock, much higher up still. Making our way into the quarry, we found more Blue Rock Thrushes and Eastern Black-eared Wheatears.

One of group noticed some movement in the rocks at the base of the rock face, and a bird flew up and landed on a rock. It was a male Rock Thrush (Common or Rufous-tailed, not Blue!). A nice surprise here, as they are normally found much higher up in the mountains. We had a good view of it through the scopes – blue above, orange below, with a white back. When it eventually flew up the quarry face towards the top, a female Rock Thrush appeared too. They perched briefly before disappeared over the top.

Rock Thrush

Rock Thrush – we found a pair in the quarry

Next, we drove over to Serres and, after negotiating our way through town, up onto Mount Vrontou. A couple of Woodlarks were perched on the rocks by the road as we made our way up, along with a Black Redstart. A pair of Mistle Thrushes perched on some wires and Chiffchaffs were singing in the trees. We headed straight up to the ski centre at the top for lunch.

There was still some snow on the ground by the road and the beech trees were still not in leaf, everything seemed to be a little behind this year. Several Coal Tits were singing in pines, a Tree Pipit was singing from the trees beside the ski slope and a smart male Black Redstart was dropping down to feed on the short grass from the ski lift cables. It was slightly surprising to hear Cuckoos all the way up here – a male calling and a female bubbling.

After lunch, we had a quick walk round the road at the top, but there was a distinct chill in the air and the bare beech trees were rather quiet. We decided to drop down to the ski hotel a bit lower down in the pines. It is closed for the season now, but we found lots of Common Crossbills in the pines around the car park and had good views of several feeding on cones through the scopes.

Crossbill

Common Crossbill – feeding in the pines by the ski hotel

Down a bit lower, we stopped again and had a short walk along a path through the trees. We heard more Coal Tits singing, a Chiffchaff flew across the path and a Goldcrest singing in the pines slowly made its way out and showed itself briefly before disappearing back into the trees. Otherwise, it was rather quiet here, being rather cool with a fresh breeze blowing up the hillside. There was a great view of the mountain slopes from the end of the path and we found a Short-toed Eagle and a Raven over the crags.

We made our way back down the mountain and headed over to Paleokastro, stopping by another disused quarry. We were hoping to find a Roller here but there was no sign – possibly they were not back yet. A couple more Eastern Olivaceous Warblers were singing – there were definitely more in today – and a female Red-backed Shrike perched in the top of a small bush across the field. Looking further down the track, a tree on the verge had eight Black-headed Buntings in it! We walked along the track for a closer look, and the buntings dropped down into a neighbouring fallow field covered in sparse grass and wild flowers.

We climbed up onto verge and scanned the surrounding countryside. Four Turtle Doves flew past, and a couple of Common Buzzards circled up. A small party of Bee-eaters flew over calling. Then a Tawny Pipit flew up out of the grass and dropped down into the edge of the bare field next door, out of view. We walked down through the grass, and more Tawny Pipits flew up – a group of eleven, followed by another four, and there was still at least one in the grass. More migrants on their way through.

Tawny Pipit

Tawny Pipit – one of at least 16 in the grassy field

Three Black-headed Wagtails were feeding on the edge of a rough ploughed field the other side, then they flew in too and disappeared into the grass. As we walked back up to the track, we found the Black-headed Buntings again, all males, presumably just arrived and feeding up.

Then we had to leave. It had been a long day and we still had quite a way to go to get back to the hotel in time for dinner.

THURSDAY 2ND MAY

Today we were heading down to the coast for the day. On the drive there, we saw lots of Corn Buntings singing from the wires all the way down, but just one Black-headed Bunting. Perhaps they were still to move onto their territories, but the gusty breeze this morning didn’t help. A female Montagu’s Harrier drifted across the road in front of the minibus and across a field full of poppies.

As we left Kalahori village, we stopped to scan the saltmarsh. There were lots of Shelduck and our first Oystercatchers here, and it didn’t take too long to find a pair of Stone Curlews. We had a good view of them through the scopes.

Stone Curlew

Stone Curlew – we found a pair out on the saltmarsh

On the corner of the first lagoon, beside the track, we had a taste of what was to come. A small group of Ruff were feeding in the shallows and a flock of smaller waders flew in to join them, five Dunlin and several Curlew Sandpipers resplendent to various extents in rusty summer plumage. On the other side of the track, out on the edge of the bay, a couple of Little Terns were hovering out over the sea and a 1st summer Mediterranean Gull was picking around on the shore with a single Black-headed Gull and one Yellow-legged Gull.

As we parked by the causeway and got out of the minibus, it was rather windy. Undaunted, we set out along the path between the lagoons. There were more Little Terns on a small island, and another Curlew Sandpiper. A little further on, we spotted our first Little Stint, along with several of both Kentish Plovers and Ringed Plovers.

Kentish Plover

Kentish Plover – on the shore of the lagoon

We could see lots of waders right over along the far edge of the lagoons on both side, so we made our way over. There were some impressive numbers of birds here, with over 1,000 Curlew Sandpipers and at least 200 Little Stints, in a variety of plumages but with some very smart rusty ones of both species. A smaller number of Dunlin were mixed in with them. There were lots of Ruff over in the corner, two Black-tailed Godwits out in the middle and a flock of Spotted Redshanks further round in the distance on the edge of the reeds. Just two Greater Flamingoes, a young male and a young female, were out in the deeper water in the middle of the lagoon.

Curlew Sandpiper

Curlew Sandpipers – there were over 1,000 on the lagoons today

There were lots of birds hawking out over the water in the wind. We counted eighteen smart adult White-winged Black Terns and a single Black Tern with them. The first two Slender-billed Gulls flew in and landed briefly before flying off again, but more arrived steadily until there were eighteen swimming out on the water. There were loads of hirundines too and at one point, a tight flock of around 200 Sand Martins flew past.

White-winged Black Tern 2

White-winged Black Tern – 1 of 18 hawking over the lagoon

Several Marsh Harriers were hanging in the air over the reeds at the back. Scanning out over the saltmarsh, we spotted two Ospreys hunting way off in the distance. It was hard to make out any detail, although their flight action was distinctive enough, but thankfully one then came in closer so we could all see what it was. As we turned to walk back, a Peregrine then flew in from the sea and circled over the lagoon. Two Gull-billed Terns flew over calling.

We drove further on down the track and stopped for coffee. From here, we had a much better view of the Spotted Redshanks, mostly in black breeding plumage. There were about thirty roosting in one flock and more feeding along the edge of the reeds. Two Greenshanks were with them.

After coffee, we made our way down along the track which skirts the edge of the Axios delta. A couple of Common Redshank on the saltmarsh on the edge of the bay were an addition to the wader list. As we passed, we scanned the pools below the track on the landward side. A large flock of Greater Flamingoes took off from one pool as we drove up, disturbed by a plane circling just beyond, and we were treated to an amazing flash of pink wings as they flew past us. They circled round over the bay, and half of them came back in and landed again back on the pool. A few Pygmy Cormorants were perched on the fishing net poles out in the bay as we passed and several Common Terns were plunge diving along the edge of the sea.

Greater Flamingoes 2

Greater Flamingoes – flashing bright pink as they flew

The pools held a variety of waders – nesting Avocets and Black-winged Stilts, occasional little groups of Wood Sandpipers and Ruff, a few Curlew Sandpipers and a couple of Little Stints. Collared Pratincoles were hawking either side of the track in the wind all the way down, and we finally got one on the ground in the scopes, standing on the mud by one of the pools. Four more Gull-billed Terns were loafing on another. Reed Warblers were singing from ditches, and lots of Black-headed Wagtails and Crested Larks flushed from the edge of the track as we passed.

There were several Common Sandpipers along the edge of the bay as we made our way along. One of the group spotted two larger, paler waders roosting out on the edge of the saltmarsh – Marsh Sandpipers. We had a look at them from the minibus, but unfortunately they took off as we tried to get out. We could see them flying round like small Greenshanks before they dropped down again further back, out of view.

We stopped for lunch a little further on. The sandbars which often hold roosting birds were mostly under water but there were still a few waders here, several Grey Plovers and a couple of Eurasian Curlews. There were more waders scattered round the edge of the saltmarsh, including one very smart Grey Plover in breeding plumage. Lots of Eastern Bath White butterflies were fluttering around the flowers in the lee of the bank.

When we got to the mouth of the Axios river we had a quick stop at the viewing tower before turning inland. Two Spur-winged Lapwings were on one of the pools below the track, so we stopped to watch them, smart birds. A little further on, another two were out on the saltmarsh the other side. There were several Pygmy Cormorants loafing around the edges of the pools, which finally allowed us a closer look at this often very flighty species, and two Spoonbills were feeding in the shallow water, sweeping their bills from side to side. Several Marsh Harriers hunted over the reeds. We stopped to look at a little group of Turtle Doves feeding out on the saltmarsh and a pair of Hoopoes flew off as we drove on.

Pygmy Cormorant 3

Pygmy Cormorant – on the pools by the track through the Axios Delta

Back on the main road, we drove up to Polykastro. Two Red-footed Falcons swooped in over the field, but no one got onto them as we passed and there was nowhere to pull in. We stopped at a nearby reservoir. Another Turtle Dove was on a mound in the edge of the field as we drove in and four Whinchats were perched in the vegetation alongside the track.

The wind had dropped now, and we got out for a walk, up onto the bank. As we got over the top and looked out across the reservoir, we could see over 100 terns hawking out over the water. There were lots of Common Terns, mixed in with a smaller number of White-winged Black Terns and Black Terns dip feeding. More surprising, there were several Little Terns with them, despite it being long way inland. We could see both Little and Great Crested Grebes on the water, and several Ferruginous Ducks scattered along far shore. A single Common Pochard and a pair of Gadwall were swimming by the island in the middle.

A hepatic female Cuckoo flew past, and a grey male perched up singing in a nearby tree. An Eastern Olivaceous Warbler was singing in the bushes just below the bank.

Eastern Olivaceous Warbler

Eastern Olivaceous Warbler – singing in the bushes below the bank

Then as we scanned over the fields, we got distracted by some raptors. First we found a Long-legged Buzzard hovering, but it dropped down behind some trees. We could see some kestrels hovering in the distance, and when we looked more closely we realised there were at least ten of them in a big group, Lesser Kestrels. They were rather pale below when they banked and one male showed the distinctive grey panel between its dark primaries and rusty wing coverts. There were also a few Red-footed Falcons with them. We got on a couple of females first, grey above and rusty below. Then we found a smart male, dark slate grey with silvery primaries, and we could just see its red trousers as it turned.

We picked up the Long-legged Buzzard again, perched in a tree, and when it finally took off and flew round, we got a better look at its paler head and dark belly, and its pale rusty tail with a white base. It was mobbed at one point by a Common Buzzard, giving us a good side by side comparison, the Long-legged Buzzard being noticeably bigger and rustier.

It was already getting late, and we still had a long drive back, so we had to tear ourselves away. There was still one surprise on the way. As we were driving along, one of the group noticed a woodpecker on some wires. After a quick turn round, the Syrian Woodpecker flew to a telegraph post, and we had a nice view of it as it perched out in the open. Then it flew to a garden behind, and we realised there were two, chasing each other round through the trees.

Syrian Woodpecker

Syrian Woodpecker – flew from the wires to a telegraph post

We finally got back to hotel just in time for a quick drink before another delicious dinner – very welcome after a long but very rewarding day.

FRIDAY 3RD MAY

Sombre Tit was one species which had eluded us so far – they are not very vocal at this time of year – so we headed out for an early walk before breakfast to look for one we knew was not far away. As we parked and walked up the track, it was still rather cool and the sun was still not on the hillside. It was worth the early start just for the great view of the lake from here though. A Cirl Bunting flew up from the verge and we could hear one or two Subalpine Warblers singing. Further up, we had a nice view of a male Subalpine Warbler feeding in the bushes by the track. A smart male Red-backed Shrike perched in the top of a tree.

As the sun finally came onto the hillside, we walked slowly back down and could hear a Sombre Tit calling in the bushes. We followed the sound and could see it working its way up through the undergrowth towards the track. It perched up in full view for a second but we were looking into the light and not everyone could get onto it. We got ourselves positioned to see it come out again and just at that moment a small 4×4 came up the track – we hadn’t seen any other vehicle here, and it was the worst possible moment. We had to stand to one side and after it had passed, the Sombre Tit had disappeared, presumably flushed back down the hillside by the vehicle. We stopped and listened but couldn’t hear it now. Unfortunately we were out of time too, and had to get back to the hotel for breakfast.

After breakfast, we drove down to the water trough again. Two male Black-headed Buntings were singing from the bushes and there were several Eastern Olivaceous Warblers in now. Two male and a female Red-backed Shrike were scattered around, and a male Woodchat Shrike was singing from the tops of the trees. A Montagu’s Harrier flew in over the fields, a female, and disappeared up towards the hills, presumably a migrant on its way north. A Levant Sparrowhawk circled up distantly over the hillside.

As we drove on, we could see lots of birds in a small orchard by the road which just been mown. Three male Black-headed Buntings and four Crested Larks were feeding on the cut grass between the trees and a small group of Black-headed Wagtails were perched on the fence at the back.

Cutting across towards the western shore of the lake, a tractor was mowing the verge, followed by a White Stork which almost wouldn’t get out of the road as we passed, giving us point blank views from the minibus. Small groups of pelicans were flying round, starting to look for the first thermals of the morning. Along the edge of the lake, we could see the usual selection of Little Egrets, herons and a few Dalmatian Pelicans. We stopped briefly at Korifoudi. The Great Reed Warblers were still singing from the reeds, but this time perching up nicely in lighter winds. A Woodchat Shrike was still in its usual bush and a Roe Deer buck ran across the fields at the back.

Continuing on down to Himarros, we drove in along the dusty track. A pair of Turtle Doves in the bushes flew off as we pulled up and several Little Egrets were standing around the pools. A Spur-thighed Tortoise was slowly crossing the track in front of us, so we stopped to look at it. Continuing on to the old quarry, there were Bee-eaters flying round calling as we got out of the minibus. Three Woodchat Shrikes perched on the fence – nice to see, but not the one we really wanted here. A pair of Eastern Black-eared Wheatears was also on the fence, the male a rather dark black-throated individual. Another male wheatear was perched in the trees just across the track, this one a rather pale black-eared form, demonstrating just how very variable they can be.

It was warming up now, and raptors were starting to spiral up over the hills beyond. First a Lesser Spotted Eagle circled over, followed by a Short-toed Eagle and several Common Buzzards. A Black Stork drifted high along the ridge and a few Dalmatian Pelicans flew over us too.

We had a good look around the quarry area and finally the Masked Shrikes showed themselves. There were two males, and at first we watched them chasing each other through the trees. One male kept coming back to top of the same tree to sing, where we had some lovely views of it perched up in the sunshine. At one point it dropped down into the river beyond to drink and bathe.

Masked Shrike

Masked Shrike – kept returning to the top of the same tree to sing

It was time for a celebratory coffee. Afterwards, we went back for more views of the Masked Shrikes. A Golden Oriole was singing in the trees across the river but typically kept itself well hidden. We were just packing up as two Woodlarks flew in, and started feeding in the short grass in the clearing.

We drove back north from here, to the edge of the Mavrovouni Hills, with a quick stop en route to admire a pair of Red-backed Shrikes in the bushes by the road. Parking at the bottom of a rough track, we walked up hillside. There were lots of butterflies on the wing here – including Scarce Swallowtails, Knapweed and Queen of Spain Fritillaries, and Mallow Skipper. Two Hermann’s Tortoises were on the verges and several Egyptian Grasshoppers flew up ahead of us. We stopped to watch some dung beetles rolling up balls of dung and trying to push and pull them in pairs across the track.

Dung Beetles

Dung beetles – pushing balls of dung across the track

There were a few raptors up now. A Levant Sparrowhawk flew out of the trees ahead of us, with a flash of its blue-grey upperparts and black wing tips, then gave us a nice view as it circled out over the valley. A Lesser Spotted Eagle came low over the ridge beside us, before circling up and displaying. A Black Kite drifted high over the hills.

Lesser Spotted Eagle

Lesser Spotted Eagle – came low over the ridge beside us

A Woodchat Shrike was down on the brambles in the bottom of the valley and a Subalpine Warbler and several Nightingales were singing in the bushes, but there were few other passerines active in the midday heat. We walked back down to the minibus, and drove round to one of the lakeside shelters for lunch in the shade.

After lunch, we drive round to the eastern shore and back up onto the embankment. As we made our way north, we stopped again where we had seen the Penduline Tits on Monday. They had made quite a bit of progress on the nest and it was almost finished, with the entrance tunnel now built. We watched the pair coming and going, putting the finishing touches to it, and the male perched at the entrance calling, as if to seek approval that the work was done.

Carrying on along the bank, there were loads of Wood Sandpipers and Squacco Herons down along the shore of the lake on one side. On the other side, many more Eastern Olivaceous Warblers were singing now in the bushes, having arrived in the last few days, since we were last here. There were several Red-backed Shrikes along here too now. We had great views of Bee-eaters, perched on branches below us along the bank, and finally got better views of Golden Orioles in the poplar trees.

Red-backed Shrike

Red-backed Shrike – back in good numbers on our last day

We stopped at the northern edge of the water. The lake was filling up steadily now with meltwater from the mountains beyond. The Ruddy Shelduck was still here, with 35 Greylag Geese. A huge number of Spoonbills were busy feeding in the shallows – we counted at least 80. A Cattle Egret appeared briefly with the herd of buffaloes. But the highlight was watching a huge raft of several hundred White Pelicans feeding, swimming and repeatedly plunging their heads underwater, occasionally gathering in tighter groups, or flying to catch up with each other. A small group of about ten Dalmatian Pelicans were feeding nearby, but not joining in with the melee.

A little further on along the bank, we spotted a female Northern Wheatear on the rocks on the edge of the lake, a migrant on its way north and a welcome late addition to the list. We stopped again at the pool at the north end of the embankment, where several Little Bitterns were lurking on the edge of the reeds, including a couple of smart males today too. There were one or two Little Crakes still, and the Coypu.

As we drove past Megalochori, a Little Owl was perched on the churchyard wall. Crossing over the Strimon river, we stopped and walked down one of the tracks into the trees. There was no sign of any woodpeckers on the first one we tried, but crossing over to the other side, we didn’t have to go far before a Grey-headed Woodpecker flew in. It landed in a tree above the path, great to finally see one having just heard them earlier in the week. A couple of Golden Orioles flew out of the trees too.

We had just enough time for a quick stop at Mandraki at the end of the day. The water was much higher here now, and there were fewer birds compared to earlier in the week. Four Glossy Ibis flew over but landed out of view behind the reeds. There were still lots of herons and Pygmy Cormorants around in the trees, and it was nice to have one last look at the lake. Then it was back to the hotel for a shower, drinks and dinner, another delicious salad followed by Turkish meatballs.

SATURDAY 4TH MAY

After our last breakfast, once again a great spread of Greek pastries, yoghurt with honey, boiled eggs and fresh bread, we set off back to the airport. The drive down was fairly uneventful, with lots of Corn Buntings on the wires by the road and a single Red-backed Shrike. The Jackdaws around the terminal building which had welcome us were there to bid us farewell. The flight got away on time and we arrived back to a cloudy and cool Gatwick Airport.

It had been another great week – with lots of good birds, fantastic food and great scenery. If you would be interested in joining us on our next visit to Northern Greece and Lake Kerkini in 2020, please get in touch.

 

Aug 2018 – Romania: Birds & Bears, Part 2

This is the second of a 3 part blog post about our visit to Romania in August 2018. The Danube Delta is one of the largest wetlands in the world. Most of it is accessible only by boat. It is a haven for wildlife, particularly waterbirds, and is a destination which should be on every birdwatcher’s ‘must see’ list.

After our visit to the Dobrogea, we spent four days out in the Delta. We sailed from the port of Tulcea, on the Danube, and spent three nights in the village of Crisan, out in the Delta, exploring different parts of the surrounding area each day mainly by boat. On our tour in June 2019 we will use a floating hotel, which will give us even more flexibility on where we can go. You can read more about next year’s tour here.

13th-16th August – The Danube Delta

The first thing which strikes you, as you motor along the smaller channels through the Delta, is the abundance of herons. Squacco Herons are everywhere, particularly favouring the carpets of floating lilypads or water chestnut along the sides of the waterways.

Squacco Heron

Squacco Heron – walking on a carpet of water chestnut

Grey and Purple Herons are both common too.

Purple Heron 1

Purple Heron – common along the smaller channels

We flushed lots of Night Herons from the trees as we motored past – the spotty juveniles were more obliging, whereas the adults tended to hide in or under the trees.

Night Heron

Night Heron – the juveniles were more obliging than the adults

Egrets are abundant as well, with large numbers of both Great White Egret and Little Egret feeding along the channels. We saw lots of Glossy Ibis too, but only a couple of Spoonbills. White Storks were still fairly common, even though the breeding season was largely over, and we saw a couple of Black Storks flying overhead.

Great White Egret

Great White Egret – great views from the boat

There are obviously lots of Little Bitterns, but they were typically elusive, hiding in the reeds. We heard many more than we saw and the latter were mostly birds seen flying across the channels, although we did see a few each day. (Great) Bitterns are present too, but in much smaller numbers and they are even harder to see, so it was a great spot to see one standing on the edge of the reeds as we were motoring past on our way back one afternoon.

Little Bittern

Little Bittern – typically skulking in the reeds

Pelicans are one of the birds you want to see when you come to the Danube Delta. The area hosts significant breeding populations of both Great White Pelicans and Dalmatian Pelicans. The number of Great White Pelicans was historically estimated at around 4,500 pairs, out of a European population of 5,600, but more recent counts suggest there may now be over 17,000 pairs in the Delta alone! Dalmatian Pelicans are rarer, with only about 3,500 pairs in Europe, of which around 450 pairs nest in the Delta.

With the breeding season already over, and high levels of disturbance from boats on many of the channels during the holidays in Romania, we didn’t see as many pelicans as perhaps we might have done otherwise. Water levels were also apparently high, after unseasonally heavy rains in July. We had already seen lots of White Pelicans around the lagoons on the Black Sea Coast.

Despite this, we still saw White Pelicans daily in the Delta, generally in small groups loafing along the channels, or as single birds looking for an easy meal around fishing nets! On our last day, when we motored back through the quieter northern part of the Delta, we saw more White Pelicans, including some more sizeable flocks circling up to head off to feed and a feeding party out on one of the lakes.

White Pelicans

White Pelicans – loafing and preening

White Pelican

White Pelican – viewing from the boat allows a close approach

Probably for the same reasons, we only saw a small number of Dalmatian Pelicans on this trip, but still we got some nice close views of one or two birds.

Dalmatian Pelican

Dalmatian Pelican – present in much smaller numbers

Pygmy Cormorant is another species localised to SE Europe for which the Delta is an important area. About 10,000 pairs are estimated to breed here, around 25% of the total European population. We saw a small number each day, mostly loafing on trees of posts along the channels, but we found more on the quieter channels to the north on our way back on the last day. It seems likely that when feeding they are particularly prone to disturbance by large numbers of boats.

Pygmy Cormorant

Pygmy Cormorant – the Delta contains 25% of the European popualtion

About two-thirds of the European population of Ferruginous Duck breeds in the Delta too. We saw a quite a few in the small lagoons along the edges of some of the quieter channels, including a good proportion of juveniles. However, the highlight was seeing over a thousand individuals on a single lake in a huge raft mixed with Coot and a smaller number of Common Pochard. Quite a sight!

Ferruginous Duck

Ferruginous Duck – fairly common still along the quieter channels

Garganey is probably the commonest duck here, at least the species which we saw most often. The biggest surprise was disturbing a family of Goldeneye from one of the channels – the Delta appears to be south of the usual range for this species, but apparently it has recently been proven to breed here, probably in very small numbers.

Grebes are well represented, with both Great Crested Grebe and Little Grebe being fairly common. We also saw smaller numbers of both Black-necked Grebe and Red-necked Grebe, both of which breed in the Delta.

Red-necked Grebe

Red-necked Grebe – a juvenile

Little Crakes breed here too, but are not easy to see. We were fortunate to spot single juveniles on two different occasions, creeping over the vegetation along the edge of the channels as we were passing, before they scurried quickly into cover.

Whiskered Terns are common, particularly around areas of floating vegetation, lilypads or water chestnut. We saw lots of fledged juveniles, many still being fed by adults, and even a pair still nest building! Large numbers also gathered to feed along the major waterways later in the day, dipping down to pick insects from the surface of the water.

Whiskered Terns

Whiskered Tern – a common sight in the Delta

We also saw a single White-winged Black Tern, which flew over the boat on our way back one day, and Common Terns were (appropriately enough) common. We visited the village of Caraorman on one day and walked out to explore some small pools nearby. There were lots of gulls loafing here and with them a whopping total of at least 53 Caspian Terns!

White-tailed Eagles seem to be doing well in the Delta and we saw birds most days. An adult perched in the trees just above the channel was a particular treat. We cut the engine and drifted right underneath it – quite a sight to see it staring back down at us!

White-tailed Eagle

White-tailed Eagle – perched in the trees just above the boat!

Marsh Harriers are fairly common here and we saw one juvenile Montagu’s Harrier hunting along the drier bank of one of the main channels, presumably just a bird passing through. A Black Kite drifting high overhead on our last day was a welcome bonus.

Hobby was probably the raptor we saw most often, with singles or pairs often seen circling over the trees beside the channels. We also saw a small number of Red-footed Falcons in the Delta, particularly around the village of Letea when we went to explore the forest which grows in the sand dunes here. Two Honey Buzzards circled up out of the trees that day too.

Hobby

Hobby – the commonest raptor in the trees along the channels

Out in the more open parts of the Delta, we saw relatively few passerines. In the reedbeds, we saw Great Reed, Reed and Sedge Warblers. Bearded Tits could be heard pinging and we heard several Penduline Tits and had good views of a juvenile.

The more wooded parts of the Delta are surprisingly good places for woodpeckers. We saw three different Black Woodpeckers – two from the boat in poplars along the channels and a third when we walked into the Letea Forest. We also had our best views of several Grey-headed Woodpeckers here, plus numerous Syrian and Lesser Spotted Woodpeckers.

Black Woodpecker

Black Woodpecker – this one flew over the boat

Also in the trees and bushes along the channels, we saw Golden Orioles, Redstarts and some of the commoner warblers. Our only Icterine Warbler of the trip appeared in the willows above the boat when we had stopped to listen to a couple of calling Thrush Nightingales. On our walk in Letea Forest, as well as the Black Woodpecker, the highlight was finding several juvenile Collared Flycatchers (it appears they may breed here), alongside the much more numerous Spotted Flycatchers.

It appeared that passerines were already moving through the Delta, and walking along the river bank in the early morning at Crisan we came across good numbers of Willow Warblers and Lesser Whitethroats, plus a juvenile Red-breasted Flycatcher. We had our best views of Thrush Nightingale here too, in the bushes along the river.

Crisan also provided us with a couple of nice surprises. An isolated population of Bluethroats breeds in the Delta and it is not an easy bird to see here. We were therefore very pleased to find one feeding under the tamarisks on the edge of the village, and we subsequently saw it on the following two days too.

Bluethroat

Bluethroat – a surprise find under the tamarisks at Crisan

Wagtails were some of the commonest passerines around the Delta. We saw large numbers of ‘yellow’ wagtails – both Blue-headed and Black-headed Wagtails – as well as White Wagtails. We had been told that Citrine Wagtail is just a very rare visitor here even though, based on its breeding and wintering ranges, it might be expected to pass through here more regularly. It was therefore nice to find a first winter Citrine Wagtail feeding with White Wagtails around a small marshy pool by the tamarisks on the edge of Crisan village.

Citrine Wagtail

Citrine Wagtail – a first winter at Crisan

It was even more of a surprise to find two more first winter Citrine Wagtails together in the same place a couple of days later. Photos confirmed that they were two different individuals. It appears therefore that they are most likely under-recorded here and are probably regular migrants through the Delta.

We had a really enjoyable 4 days in the Danube Delta – seeing a total of 120 bird species here alone. It really is somewhere everyone should visit. From there, we made our way up to Transylvania and the southern Carpathian mountains for the third part of our trip, which we will cover in the final blog post to follow…

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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…

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.