a birding and natural history trip to the Aegean : April 8th-18th 2004
Simon Woolley & Julia Casson
See photo page here
Wednesday 7th April
A dull and M25 riddled bus journey to Heathrow, with the saving grace of a flock of Ring-necked Parakeets as a year tick, followed by a meal and a 45 minute delay to our late evening Olympic flight to Athens.
Thursday 8th April
We arrived in Athens at about 0430 local time, and had a painless transfer onto a much smaller turbo-prop plane for the flight to Lesbos. The baggage made it too, and by 0645 we had the (small!) car and were under way. We found the right road after a couple of false starts, and reached the Malemi Hotel in time for breakfast, with a Cetti's Warbler in the front garden and a Lesser Whitethroat in the back. Once checked in and introduced to Richard Brooks, we took our planned crash out for a couple of hours until 1100 or so, and then headed out to explore the local spots. The weather wasn't ideal - overcast and above all really quite windy, but we coped!
Our first stop was a hot tip at the taverna by the mini soccer pitch just north of Kalloni, where we duly located a pair of Scops Owls roosting low down in a eucalyptus - J's no. 1 target species nailed at the first attempt! Kalloni Pool was next - we scored easily with the vagrant male Bearded Tit, and also had great views of Black-winged Stilt and Garganey.
Exploring the lower East River over lunch, we had our first Wood Sandpipers, Great White Egret and various others, and the salt-pans area produced several hundred Greater Flamingoes, plus many Ruff, Greenshank and Marsh Sandpipers. Ruddy Shelduck was a major target bird, and we had good if distant views of 14 of them. Short-toed Larks were present in some numbers, and Crested Larks were simply abundant.
We crossed the road and worked our way up the upper part of the East River - Spanish Sparrow was new here. An unfamiliar nasal call had us scratching our heads - Simon was going for a wader, Julia for a woodpecker. She was right! We had good but brief views of two territorial male Middle Spotted Woodpeckers - definitely a spot to revisit later in the week. Uphill we went, via a botanically rich bit of maquis, with 1000s of asphodels, deep red anemones, dwarf irises and much more, plus Scarce Swallowtail, Small Copper and Eastern Festoon butterflies. Also here was a singing Eastern Orphean Warbler (as yet invisible), several Eastern Black-eared Wheatears, two male Cretzschmar's Buntings, Peregrine, Short-toed Eagle, Red-rumped Swallow and Common Swift.
Now essentially worn out, despite the earlier snooze injection, we crashed out once more at about 1700, deciding that discretion was definitely the better part of valour! With lots of good photos and (for Julia) two ticks, we hadn't done badly. Perhaps not as many migrants obviously 'around' as we had thought, but the weather was far from ideal, and we may just have timed it right for a big fall - fingers crossed!
Friday 9th April
Up at 0630 and a pre-breakfast hour around Kalloni Pool - well worth it for brief but adequate views of two Little Crakes, and a much better look at the Black-necked Grebes offshore. After breakfast, we headed swiftly out towards Achladeri, to beat any possible 'tour group stampede'. We only stopped very briefly en route, for two Black Storks very close to the road at 'Derbyshire', and were on site at the Krüper's stake out before 0900. We quickly connected with Middle Spotted Woodpecker, Long-tailed Tit, Jay and Short-toed Treecreeper, but we just couldn't conjure any Nuthatches.
Pressing on after a couple of hours, we headed up into the hills, mistakenly and rather unwisely driving right through the middle of Agiassos, but emerging unscathed into the pine and then sweet chestnut woods above there. The flowers up here were stunning - Anemones, Grape Hyacinths and acid green Euphorbias. After some patient wandering and botanising, we heard what 'must be' a Krüper's Nuthatch in the pines above us. We tried and failed to push through the understorey of spiny shrubs, and headed back to the road to try another route - no need! Almost immediately, a male came in and started singing (and better still) nest hole excavating right in front of us! He showed continuously for almost an hour. Superb stuff. The sole distractions here and at a picnic spot just down the hill were several Subalpine Warblers, Serins, a Blue Rock Thrush, Crag Martins and still more amazing flowers.
From here, we dropped down and retraced our steps for a few kilometres towards Mytilini, to stop in at the disappointingly very dry Dipi Larssos reedbeds. We did see a single Glossy Ibis here, plus LRP, Wood and Green Sands and many 'Yellow' Wagtails (Black-headed and Blue-headed in roughly equal measure), plus a couple of Tortoises and lots of Terrapins.
A late afternoon raptor watch-cum-veg session was called for (with another look at the roosting Scops Owls on the way) - we camped out at a 'bandstand' picnic table just north of Kalloni - only a Sparrowhawk on the raptor front, but we did have a Black-eared Wheatear, several extremely photogenic and confiding Cretzschmar's Buntings, Stonechat and a dung beetle grappling with some human faeces - but not ours.
We were by now pretty tired out, and a 'last gasp' attempt to find Kalloni inland lake failed in ignominy in a rutted farm track! Right by the hotel, however, a ringtail harrier (probably Montagu's but possible Pallid) quartered the fields, though all too briefly.
Saturday 10th April
A day to head to the far west of the island. After breakfast, we headed south-west along the coast road, via a Long-legged Buzzard by the road and another Black Stork at Parakila Marsh, with a first proper stop just past Agra. This had been touted as a Cinereous Bunting site, and sure enough, we quite quickly connected with at least three singing males. Also here were many Cretzschmar's Buntings, lots of Black-eared Wheatears and a Blue Rock Thrush. A but further on, a screeching stop for a 'funny passerine' scored big time, but frustratingly very briefly - Sombre Tit : definitely one to see again much better later on. Also frustrating here was a very distant and not very satisfactory Western Rock Nuthatch, and another Cinereous Bunting.
Past Eressos, we stopped at a reputed Rüppell's Warbler site, without luck - two Long-legged Buzzards, Peregrine, Chukar and Subalpine Warbler here, plus a very green tree frog! Much better luck was had at a very windy Sigri junction - at least three Isabelline Wheatears showed almost immediately after arrival, and were all spooked by a sub-adult male Pallid Harrier which scythed through with a high speed tailwind!
Up at Ipsilou Monastery, the wind was excessively strong on the south side, but in greater shelter on the other side, we found a singing male Western Rock Nuthatch, two Rock Sparrows, Crag Martin and lots of butterflies, including False Apollo and Large Wall Brown. Also we enjoyed feeding scraps of tuna to two tiny tourist habituated kittens here .
Onwards to the west, and a quick stop in Sigri for Lesser Kestrel, before exploring the track to Faneromeni. Undoubted highlight here was a huge (500+) flock of 'yellow' Wagtails, along with a subadult male Marsh Harrier, Peregrine, and a treeful of Corn Buntings and Spanish Sparrows. The ford was a pretty big disappointment - not a lot at all!
We decided to take the not much longer but rather slower coast road back to Eressos - a quick stop at the ford (should've been longer - we dipped Bittern and Purple Heron!) produced Reed Warbler and two Little Crakes, and the lovely remote coastal scenery was well worth the bumpy track.
We headed back with few stops towards Skala Kallonis - Parakila Marsh was worth another look, as it had two each of Spotted and Little Crakes right by the track. Also, we succeeded in finding Kalloni inland lake - Squacco Heron, yet another Little Crake, Garganey and some roosting Night Herons, plus Swifts and Swallows drinking.
Last thing, we checked out Skala Kallonis pool - a big roost of hirundines (mostly Sand Martins, and only about 10% Swallows) was building up, attended by a female Sparrowhawk. A lengthy but rewarding day - now we could still do with some migrants, please!
Sunday 11th April
After negotiating a veggie lunch, we headed north to the supposedly reliable Rüppell's Warbler site near Petra, via our first shrike of the trip, a Woodchat. The site was indeed reliable! We scored with a pair nest building and the male displaying right by the road, and took some (by any standards) good photographs. Also here was a Western Rock Nuthatch - they're not so hard after all! Offshore, a few Shags flew by, but much more exciting were significant numbers of Yelkouan Shearwaters, plus a pod of upwards of 30 Common Dolphins.
A brief stop at Molivos Castle revealed no Alpine Swifts among the Common Swifts, but we did find a 'pair' of lizards, one huge, the other tiny, the latter riding piggy back on the former - bizarre stuff! Out of town, past various sheep being roast whole on garden spits for Easter Sunday lunch, and we headed along the lovely quiet coast road past Eftalou. Offshore here, it became apparent that a major movement or concentration of Yelkouan Shearwaters was under way. A careful repeated estimate made it about 3500 birds, and we counted at least a further 600-700 arriving from the east after that, with unknown numbers perhaps also joining the feeding frenzy from the west. We had views of Cory's just a few times - clearly there were only very few in attendance. A fantastic sight to see thousands of shearwaters plunge- and surface-diving after fish (sardines?).
Black-eared Wheatear, Cretzschmar's Bunting and Subalpine Warbler were all common along this road, and we saw several Orphean Warblers and Lesser Whitethroats too. Two Woodchat Shrikes showed very well by the abandoned army post, and we had yet another Western Rock Nuthatch. Offshore, three adult Audouin's Gulls bobbed on the water, aloof from each other, and certainly the rather vulgar shearwater / Yellow-legged Gull melée further out!
After a tactical Coca-Cola at a very pleasant and cat-bedecked café at Skala Sikkimia we climbed steeply uphill and then back along the faster road to Petra, via four Common Buzzards, two Sparrowhawks and up to 10 Alpine Swifts in a big flock of Common Swifts - these certainly seem to have arrived in the last day or two.
Back south over the mid-island saddle behind two tortuously slow local Sunday drivers, and we decided to check the salt pans - well worthwhile! A Stone-curlew did its usual forlorn look on a bund, Common Tern numbers were up, and five Little Terns were new in. Also new were 10 Pintail, two Tawny Pipits, a Common Sandpiper and a Kentish Plover.
Some hot gen. from some Swedish people had us visiting the inland lake last thing - not so much for the lake itself, where the only turnover evident was four Green and one Common Sandpipers, but for a nearby field, where the pair of Masked Shrikes showed well, if a bit distantly, the male even doing a bit of singing. One for the morning when the light is more favourable!
Monday 12th April
A local day today, starting with a run up the Potamia valley to the west of Skala Kallonis. The big target for the day was good views of Sombre Tit - we both wanted a much better look than last time! We had accurate gen. this time, but no sign opposite the sheep pen first thing - just Woodchat and Masked Shrikes and an Orphean Warbler. We headed on uphill - it remained disappointingly overcast and cool, so there was relatively little life, but we did see a Nightingale well, and connected with Song Thrush and Woodlark for the trip, plus another Middle Spotted Woodpecker, Hoopoe and several Lesser Whitethroats.
A stop back at the sheep pens on the way down was much better - after just a few minutes, Simon had good views of two Sombre Tits, but Julia only just connected in time, once again! We had to wait almost another hour for them to show again - finally we were both happy! Lunch was taken with the Masked Shrikes at the inland lake, and then we took a short siesta - deserved!
Post-snooze, we took a slow drive up the upper East River, and once again into the hills. As so often with these things, we connected with another Sombre Tit! Photos this time, too. Also we saw a Fox on the old ruined castle, and were drawn up there for wonderful views over Kalloni and the Gulf. Not much else doing on the bird front, so we dropped down to the salt pans, where there had plainly been some turnover and new arrivals - 6 Whiskered Terns, 3 Gull-billed Terns, 2 Curlews and 5 Spotted Redshanks were all new. Also there were significantly more LRPs and now 10 Little Terns.
Tuesday 13th April
Overcast and a bit windy today, and quite cool to go with it. We headed east to the Achladeri Krüper's site - again no luck with that, but we did have a Wood Warbler. Further south via the coast road (and what was most likely a Red-throated Pipit - it only called once), we made our way to a very windy Vatera, and headed for the headland by the ruined temple of Dionysus (very ruined indeed!). A quick seawatch revealed 30+ Cory's and rather fewer Yelkouan, and the incongruous sight of a Wood Sandpiper beating east against the wind! There were plainly few if any migrants around, so we headed inland with a couple of false turns over the Olympus massif - a mixture of dreadful tracks and expensively (EU!) upgraded roads. We decided to shift our attention from birds to orchids for the day, and headed for the site recommended to us near Lambou Myli.
After a fantastic lunch, we spent at least three very happy hours botanising the slopes either side of the road - huge numbers of orchids of 14 (!) species, including many Ophrys species and literally thousands of Serapias too. A really magical place.
Back down in the lowlands, we dropped in for our now regular salt pans session - two Pallid Harriers (one a near adult male), a very obliging Black Stork, and new wader arrivals - Grey Plover and Little Stint, plus lots more Ruff. A final run down to Parakila Marsh was pretty uneventful (a sheep jam on the main track didn't help), but we finished off well with a Marsh Harrier and 11 Glossy Ibis at Kalloni Pool.
We shared dinner with Sven and Sara (our Swedish orchid experts), and they very kindly helped us sort out our images - not an easy job!
Wednesday 14th April
Today started off overcast, but the skies soon cleared from the west, and the day was cloudless and warm. Julia had had a bad night's sleep, so after a breakfast in bed, she got up slowly while Simon showed the roosting Scops Owls to Sven and Sara - success at their third attempt!
We decided to head out west again in the hope of some migrant arrivals, and got an immediate boost shortly after Parakila, when a "what the &%$% was that?" stop resolved itself into a male Collared Flycatcher, accompanied by a female! Also here was a Sombre Tit and a calling Western Rock Nuthatch.
We cracked on to Eressos, via the first of 9 Whinchats (obviously a small arrival overnight), and then worked the coastal track slowly round to Sigri. The highlights were Rock Sparrow, Cuckoo, Cinereous Bunting and Tree Pipit, and at the ford, Little and Spotted Crakes, plus a female Pied Flycatcher, and Sedge and Reed Warblers. No sign of either the Great or the Little Bittern, however. Drat!
It was clear that Sigri and Fanaromeni held few migrants, despite our hopes, although a male Marsh Harrier cruised over and there were more Whinchats and a few Stonechats in evidence. So, via the Petrified Forest (viewed from outside), a very photogenic Little Owl, and a rather distant male Montagu's Harrier, we stopped off once more at Ipsilou Monastery, gathered a bit of gen and saw a Blue Rock Thrush.
After some good views of several Isabelline Wheatears at the road junction, we spent almost an hour dipping an endemic orchid (Ophrys lesbis) - double drat! But Alpine Swifts shot overhead and a Middle Spotted Woodpecker showed up - we were actually seeing a lot of species today!
So, on returning home, we added on a quick lap of the salt-pans to boost the day list - and in fact added two species to the trip list - Redshank, and less predictably, a female Merlin terrorising the Short-toed Larks.
The final day count was 93 species - not bad when we weren't even trying!
Thursday 15th April
A cold northerly blow got up early in the morning - not a terribly pleasant day to be out and about. We did spend some time in the lower Potamia valley, adding Pallid Swift and Great Reed Warbler to the list, and photographing Orphean Warbler, Western Rock Nuthatch, Sombre Tit, Nightingale and Black-eared Wheatear - light far from ideal, however.
We ambled northwards for the best part of the day, via Monkey Orchid and a Booted Eagle (new) over the tops, and again had lunch along the north coastal road close to Eftalou - only about three Yelkouan Shearwaters this time, not 4000!
After a spot of tourist shopping in Kalloni, we drove home via the lower East River, where an Olivaceous Warbler sang unseen in a windblasted tamarisk! It was all getting a bit desperate, so we took a late siesta, receiving by fax news of Simon's unclehood! To wet the baby's head, we headed out for the now traditional salt-pans watch towards dusk - the wind really was far too strong, and the light too poor, to do much with it. Try again tomorrow!
Friday 16th April
News of a few new migrant species the day before raised our hopes, and the weather was much brighter, if not much less breezy. We started off with a trundle along the East River - and quickly scored with several singing Eastern Olivaceous Warblers, but better still, a cracking Barred Warbler. There were plenty of Wood Sandpipers and hirundines fresh in as well, so it was clear that spring migration had finally got properly under way. We searched in vain for the Collared Pratincoles reported the night before, and did a fairly brief tour of the salt pans, before heading east once more and up into the hills around Mount Olympus.
It was a long and quite tortuous drive to the Plomari area, but eventually we found the right turn and headed up into beautiful pine-clad mountain slopes. We quite easily found Sven's orchid site, and enjoyed our lunch with some amazing Violet Limodores (not yet fully in flower, unfortunately), and some rare Dactylorhiza romana, in with Orchis morio and quite likely some hybrids!
A little further on, through very flower rich meadows and olive groves, we found the second spot - this one even more beautiful, perhaps, on a little rocky bluff by the road. Here, Orchis italicum was in full bloom, unlike the lower altitude site three days earlier, where it was almost over, and there was a single Ophrys ferrum-equinum too.
On the bird front, two Sardinian Warblers were new for the trip, and a Bee-eater was heard but not seen overhead - shades of Corsica! Subalpine Warblers were common up here, and we also found a female Collared Flycatcher.
We followed the quite poor but spectacular roads over the shoulder of the mountains and down to Agiassos again. We tried without luck for the Krüper's Nuthatch at "our" site, and explored the sweet chestnut woods a bit further, turning up Green Fritillaries, Doronicum, Wild Paeonies, and Middle Spotted Woodpecker.
Returning home, the Achladeri Krüper's site also resulted in no sightings (just one heard!), and we headed back for an evening salt-pans session, as usual! No extraordinary records here, but plainly still new waders and terns arriving - perhaps Lesbos would save the best for last?
Saturday 17th April
It did - the day of eight high quality trip ticks! The weather had hardly changed (less windy), and at first it seemed that not a lot had changed on the bird front. We failed to find the female Little Bittern at the inland lake (Sven and Sara saw it from their car just behind us!), and the female Red-backed Shrike in the Potamia Valley, although there were Great Reed Warblers at both sites, and Woodchat and Masked Shrikes too. Without great hope, we headed for the East River, and on via the dusty track towards the salt-pans.
Then, we relocated one of the Collared Pratincoles in the ploughed field (tick 1), and buoyed up, moved on to work the far end of the salt-pans. Among the many terns present were four Gull-billed, and better still, the first two White-winged Black Terns of the year (tick 2). A flock of 15 Purple Herons (four first summers) flew over (tick 3), accompanied by a Glossy Ibis. The third good bird here was a male Red-footed Falcon (tick 4) on the telegraph wires - distant but very adequate views.
We moved on with a spring in our step, round the Gulf towards Skala Polichnitos. Having lunched with a now traditional Krüper's dip at Achladeri, we took the coastal track via some useful looking pools (one holding 19 Greater Flamingos and a very confiding Kentish Plover), and arrived at Skala Polichnitos. To our delight, we were greeted by the sight of several Red-footed Falcons hanging in the breeze, and perching gregariously in the fig trees. They allowed a very close approach, and excellent photo opportunities - in the end we counted six males and two females. A wonderful experience!
Moving on just a little way, we encountered a frantically waving Chris - he and his Dad had found a flock of Golden Orioles! Julia actually (and rather embarrassingly, given here widespread world experience of the genus!) needed this for a life tick, so she was almost beside herself as we watched anything up to 20 (mostly males) leaping around in some mature trees in the valley (tick 5). Another unforgettable experience!
Exploring a bit more, Simon screeched to a halt for yet another shrike, but this one turned out to be what he had suspected - a cracking male Red-backed Shrike (tick 6). Clearly, spring had arrived!
Pretty chuffed all round, we headed back to the Skalla Kallonis area, and picked up the latest news around the salt-pans - there were clearly quite a few Red-foots in at various sites. We lucked in on four Caspian Terns over the salt-pans (tick 7), and having dipped the reported Slender-billed Gulls, tried our (we now suspected rather good) luck back at the inland lake. Following 3 flyover Squaccos, instant success! Julia quickly located the female Little Bittern right by the road (tick 8), and we were able to enjoy great views down to just a few feet. Brilliant stuff.
So, our last full day was a resounding success - all things come to those who wait!
Sunday 18th April
Up at 0645 and in for an early breakfast, and all packed up and away by 0730. A female Red-footed Falcon flew over just as we were packing up! We just had time to check the muddy ditch near the salt-pans where Sven had had a male Citrine Wagtail the night before. No luck with that, but it was crammed full of Wood Sands, with many other waders too, including a fine summer plumage Spotted Redshank. But we had one more slice of luck - the much searched-for and multiple-dip bird finally showed: 3 Red-throated Pipits calling and showing in the Salicornia. One last Red-footed Falcon on the wires rounded off the trip, and it was time to make our way to Mytilini for the flights to Athens and onwards to London.