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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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’.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!).
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.