This is a report of a birding trip to the Lake Kerkini area of Northern Greece taken by Brian Stone, Steve Dudley, Chris Park and Don Gardener from 24-29 February 2012.
Click here for a full list of species
Lake Kerkini is famed for its huge numbers of breeding pelicans, cormorants and herons, with a mouth-watering array of eastern Mediterranean breeding birds in the surrounding area. So why go in winter? Well the main attraction is the eagles that winter there; mainly Spotted Eagles with smaller numbers of White-tailed and Imperial Eagles. Add to those a few other wintering goodies, the resident birds and the fact that the eight species of woodpecker present are much easier to find and see when the leaves are off the trees and it makes for a perfect winter birding destination.
Our visit was timed partly by when the participants were available and partly to improve the chances of ‘peckers being more active towards the end of the winter. We ran the risk of some wintering eagles shipping out if the weather warmed up but balanced that against increased breeding activity from the resident birds. On the whole this paid off.
We flew with the increasingly uncomfortable and restrictive Ryanair; the only advantages being a local departure airport and cheap fares. Baggage allowances, both size and weight, are now being rather strictly enforced with many passengers being forced to repack and/or pay extra at the departure gate. Our Stansted to Thessaloniki flights cost between £75 and £95 return depending on when they were booked, including two hold bags shared between the four of us. The outward flight was on time and landed early, the return a few minutes late.
Car hire was booked through Holiday Autos and was supplied by Hertz. This was a very good deal (£137.90 for a full size SUV (5 door RAV4) for three days), especially as no after hours charge was made for the late evening collection and a second driver was included free of charge.
We stayed throughout at the Hotel Morphi (www.hotelmorfi.com/) in Kerkini village. This is a convenient location within a short walk of the lake’s western shore and some good birding in the immediate area. The cost was negotiated down to €50 per night for an apartment style room sleeping up to four. It was only really possible to make these up as a double bedroom with an additional double converted from the sofa. We had two rooms which although generally comfortable enough were not that well equipped. Promised extra bedding was not provided and the fittings were of a low standard, appearing tired or incomplete: this despite the place being refurbished following a fire last year. The staff were very good (but be aware spoke little or no English) and the breakfast a buffet style with plenty for the biggest appetites and the option of slinging together some food for a packed lunch.
If staying again we would use the Hotel Oikoperiigitis (http://www.oikoperiigitis.gr/en.html) next door where Steve stayed last year and the room standard is higher at a similar price.
Driving from the airport to the hotel should take between 1 and 1.5 hours.
We used the Steve Mills guide “Birdwatching in Northern Greece”. It is fair to say this caused more than a little frustration. Although very useful for detailed locations around the lake itself things became a bit more vague in the surrounding area. Too often the text described a site without any detailed information of where particular species could be found or even what exactly occurred there. A classic example is the account of ‘Six tit wood’ near Sidirocastro which doesn’t actually mention which tits they are. We also had a problem with the Rock Nuthatch site at Sidirocastro, where there did not appear to be a ice cream kiosk at the north end of the square as described (perhaps in summer?) and where we did find kiosks the habitat looked better but was well north of the location indicated on the sketch map. I would also have liked more information on the birds year round. There was a tendency to concentrate on spring and summer sightings in the text. Having said all that, I would not be without it if heading to the area as it is useful to get you to some good areas. Just be prepared that some birds mentioned may not be present at some times of the year and you may have to seek out the best access and habitat for yourself.
Friday, 24th March
Airport formalities were out of the way pretty quickly and we were soon heading north on fast roads through the mountains dividing the coastal sprawl of Thessaloniki from the fertile plain of the Strimonas river. Unfortunately we were gassing so much we missed the turn to Kerkini and wasted a fair bit of time navigating the maze of roads the wrong side of the river in the dark. So it was later than expected as we negotiated the road between the SW shore of the lake and the unpopulated wooded hills and unexpectedly encountered a Wild Cat as it nonchalantly crossed the road in front of us giving all great views.
Soon after we were in the hotel bar sampling the Alpha beer and planning the following days.
Saturday, 25th March
Dawn was at 06:30 and the clear skies that greeted us as we walked to the lake shore were to last all day bringing temperatures of up to 21 degrees. On the way were Kingfisher, Water Rail, singing Cirl Bunting, Cetti’s Warblers, Tree Sparrows , male Black Redstart and plenty of Water Pipits. Drumming Great spotted and calling Green Woodpeckers were a reminder of one of the main target groups for the weekend. But it was the Dalmatian Pelicans, Pygmy Cormorants and Great White Egrets at the lake shore that initially commanded most attention. A Sombre Tit showing well by the embankment was to be one of the only sightings but the same couldn’t be said for the 3 Hawfinches that flew in nearby. More of them later.
Pygmy Cormorant Microcarbo (Phalacrocorax) pygmaeus
Black Redstart Phoenicurus ochruros
Cirl Bunting Emberiza cirlus
Water Pipit Anthus spinoletta
Tree Sparrow Passer montanus
Great White Egrets and Dalmatian Pelicans flew over our first breakfast back at the hotel before we headed out to Mandraki Harbour on the northern shore.
The spectacle that awaited us here was impressive to say the least. It was hard to know where to look at times. Thousands of European White-fronted Geese were on the flats and moving to and from the surrounding fields and with them an unexpected treat: 40 Red-breasted Geese. Most of us had seen the odd ‘vagrant’ in the past in the UK, but these always have a whiff of doubt about origin hanging over them, however faint. No such odour accompanied these Russian beauties which might as well have been lifers for everyone.
Red-breasted Branta ruficollis and European White-fronted Anser albifrons albifrons Geese
There was plenty of other common wildfowl and among the more numerous Whoopers, 15 Bewick’s Swans were a good Greek record. Dalmatian Pelicans, Greater Flamingos, Great White Egrets and Spoonbills were all present in good numbers and a distant flock of 20+ Cranes circling may have included the 10 that made a close pass overhead. Waders were represented by many Dunlin and small numbers of Snipe, Greenshank, Green Sandpiper and Ruff. Plenty of Water Pipits were on the flats along with other passerines.
Dalmatian Pelican Pelecanus crispus
Common Crane Grus grus
Then came the raptors! First a couple of Marsh Harriers, Sparrowhawks and the odd Common Buzzard with Long-legged Buzzards over towards the Belles mountains displaying at times. Then a fabulous juvenile and a near adult Spotted Eagle cruised past over the water giving everyone excellent views of one of the main targets of the trip. These were followed by another adult and further sighting involving a total of between 3 and 5 birds. One sighting just over towards the mountains was quickly corrected to Lesser Spotted Eagle, an early spring adult showing well and providing a brilliant comparison of the structural and plumage differences between the two species.
Tantalising snatches of call from what was probably a Moustached Warbler here would have to wait and the puzzling bursts of Grasshopper Warbler song were also yet to be desciphered. A fly by Grey-headed Woodpecker also failed to show well enough for most of us. It was time to move on.
Above Ana Poroia
With some mind-blowing lake birding under our belt and an iffy weather forecast for the following days we decided to head into the mountains while the day remained cloudless. The Belles mountains form the border with Bulgaria and top out at just over 2000m. They were clearly quite snowy but we were equipped with a 4x4 and Steve's Black and White-backed Woodpecker site from the previous spring so headed out on the tracks north of Ana Poroia (with Nuthatch calling away in the village itself). We got to about 1000m before the soft snowy tracks became impassable in the wet thaw conditions, still well short of the woodpecker forests. A Siskin was about the only bird seen up here as we set off back down the increasingly warm slopes picking up Peacock, Brimstone, Comma, Red Admiral and Clouded Yellow butterflies on the way. Egyptian Grasshopper, Violet Carpenter Bee and a brief Snake-eyed Skink continued the warm theme. Birds included two very confiding Woodlarks and couple of unseen Rock Buntings singing, Marsh Tits, Ravens, Sparrowhawks and more Chaffinches and Hawfinches than you could shake a stick at.
Clouded Yellow Colias croceus
Wild Crocus Crocus sp.
Woodlark Lullula arborea
Back at lake level it was time to work some more ‘pecker habitat north of the River Strimonas flowing into the lake at Vironia. Just over the level crossing from the village Cetti’s Warblers were belting it out from a heavily reeded pond where more Moustached-like calls were heard. We resolved to return in the morning hoping for a more conclusive experience of this target bird. In the meantime we pressed on along the extensive tracks past reedy pools where the ‘grasshopper warbler’ singing was much more frequent and was clearly coming from the sandy ground, it finally dawning on us that the source was a very healthy population of Mole Crickets.
The pools held more Cetti’s Warblers, Water Rails, 3-4 Marsh Harriers and scattered Pygmy Cormorants and Great White Egrets as well as a cracking Bittern that flew across at close range. Mistle Thrushes, Fieldfares and Crested Larks were on the drier areas, Hawfinches buzzed by and there were 2 Green Sandpipers along with common wildfowl on the river. The star along here was a very showy Large Tortoiseshell butterfly. A couple more were seen along with Red Admiral, Comma and Peacock and Balkan Terrapin and Greek Marsh Frog completed the non-avian highlights.
Large Tortoiseshell Aglais polychloros
Greek Marsh Frog Pelophylax kurtmuelleri
Ibis Pools and South Bank
After a quick recce of our final site for the day we headed back to try the southern side of the river as sunset approached. Grey-headed Woodpeckers were calling and drumming from close to the level crossing but again gave only flight views as we spotted an unexpected male Hen Harrier high overhead. Our drive and walk along the south banks past pools towards the lake added Mute Swan, Red-crested Pochard and Common Gull to the trip list and there were 28 Cranes feeding on the flats opposite. 2 Ruff and a Green Sandpiper were on the river and Common and Pygmy Cormorants flew over constantly. In the failing light a single distant White Pelican in flight was to be the only sighting of the trip: identifiable but not ideal views.
Hen Harrier Circus cyaneus
Our earlier check on this site had failed to turn up Rock Nuthatch but it felt like a good bet for Eagle Owl so as dusk fell we settled down to listen and quickly picked up a couple of European Free-tailed Bats flying around. Their unusual shape and flight was strongly reminiscent of a wader and they looked rather like Snipe at times. The loud calls could clearly be heard by several of us, being very low for a bat at the top end of the audible range for humans. Before dark Hawfinch, Cirl Bunting and Blackbird were noted here while the magnificent view over the lake below was peppered with fires burning material off the surrounding fields.
While still light Don glimpsed an Eagle Owl fly across the cliff face and land in full view on an exposed rock. The rest of us got onto it and watched as it took off again and performed the most incredible flight circling above us, the underside illuminated by the last glow of the sunset. As it passed out of site behind the cliff a second bird began to call from lower to the left and continued until dark when we left. Altogether one of the best experiences of Eagle Owl any of us could hope for.
Dinner that evening at the Morphi was an assortment of fine greek dishes and some hearty Water Buffalo.
Sunday, 26th February
Up pre-dawn to see if the Moustached Warblers were more active first thing. A Little Owl calling at the hotel was followed by one seen en route to Veronia. Then back at the pool close to the level crossing near Veronia we were treated to excellent views of at least 2 Moustached Warblers but there was still little in the way of song. Again Cetti’s Warblers were much more vocal and Hawfinches were stirring from their roost. After having our fill of warbler action we took the track on the opposite side of the road, heading east, where a Syrian Woodpecker showed very well before it was time to get back to the hotel for breakfast.
Syrian Woodpecker Dendrocopos syriacus
Again we had heard Grey-headed activity during our early visit so came straight back (picking up a Stonechat on the way) and were treated to close views of one Grey-headed Woodpecker by the road while another called nearby. Both flew off towards the village, again showing the more direct flight profile compared with the more undulating Green Woodpecker.
Grey-headed Woodpecker Picus canus
Megalochori and the river mouth
We set off on our planned slow circumnavigation of the lake starting along the tracks on the south side of the river where we had finished yesterday. Early on along the edge of the village of Megalochori was a hotspot of woodpecker action where a male Lesser Spotted performed really well, one or two more Syrians showed and a bit further on a couple of Great Spotted Woodpeckers unfortunately completed the pied lineup: we weren’t to locate the elusive White-backed on this trip.
The morning was warming up quite well and prompted a few post-hibernation butterflies to appear, including another highlight, a very showy Nettle-tree Butterfly. It was all downhill with the weather after that though as cloud thickened and a cold wind developed bringing increasingly heavy rain for much of the rest of the day.
Nettle-tree Butterfly Libythea celtis
The reedy ditches and pools continued to turn up noisy Water Rails and flighty Pygmy Cormorants and at last one Moustached Warbler in full song. Hawfinches were everywhere, an early Chiffchaff gave us a bit of song and a Raven flew over. However the main interest was around the river mouth where another array of pelicans, flamingos, Spoonbills, Great White Egrets and assorted wildfowl greeted us. Among them a surprisingly inconspicuous Black Stork, 25 Cranes, 1 Little Ringed Plover, 8 Ruff, several Snipe, flocks of Dunlin, Lapwing and Golden Plover, 1 Common and a few Green Sandpipers, Water Pipits and a Grey Wagtail.
Black Stork Ciconia nigra
Spotted Eagles were again in evidence with 3 adults and a 3rd calendar year perched up and a further 2 adults seen in flight making a total of at least 7 birds seen when the 2nd calendar year from the previous day was included. Other raptors were confined to a few Common Buzzards here.
Spotted Eagle Aquila clanga
This bird was a long way away. This is the same shot with no resizing, just cropped.
The Eastern Shore
The track follows the shore all the way to the southern dam and we continued along this checking out the deeper waters of the lake and the polder-like farmland inland to the east. Rafts of Pochard with fewer Tufted Duck loafed at some distance and c.100 Black-necked Grebes also kept their distance while a few Goldeneye were a bit closer. 5 redhead Smew added to one we had seen on the river earlier and a corking male was on the river that ran alongside near Chrysochorafa. There were a couple of Stonechats here too and yet more Hawfinches all the way along. On reaching the dam we pressed on north back towards Kerkini up the west shore in the dull, damp conditions obtaining some close views of Dalmatian Pelicans around the fishing harbours but otherwise turning up similar wildfowl.
Dalmatian Pelicans Pelecanus crispus
Our circuit finished at Mandraki Harbour in the evening. Perhaps not as beguiling as it had been on our first visit the previous morning, and much colder, but at least the rain had stopped and there were still plenty of birds.6 Greenshank, 3 Green Sandpipers and a few Dunlin fed on the mud and a large flock of 250 or more Skylark stopped off as they passed to the west. 2 adult Spotted Eagles were perched in the flooded forest and 2 Red-breasted Geese remained.
That evening’s meal was taken in the excellent and thoroughly recommended taverna in the middle of the square at Ana Poroia. Fabulous food (Wild Boar and greek dishes) and a bit of live bouzouki music thrown in. What could be better?!
Brian, Steve and Chris (Don is taking the shot)
Monday, 27th February
Our final day, and a cold one at that. A biting wind persisted throughout and we saw little of the sun but it was to stay largely dry. We started again with a pre-breakfast wander to the lake shore at Kerkini where we picked up a pair of Goosander and 3 Smew. Two White Storks were present at the harbour looking rather bedraggled and scruffy and very tame. No doubt encouraged to over winter by free handouts but there had been no sign of them on Saturday so perhaps were early arrivals.
The Cirl Buntings were again along the approach road as was the Black Redstart, faithful to its favourite wheelie bin. Hawfinches and a Little Owl completed the picture and, after another hearty breakfast, we prepared to leave the Morphi, bound for the Bulgarian border.
Just before the border we took the road through Promachonas, following directions in “Birdwatching in Northern Greece”. This was a little confusing because, although the sites were described in order along the road, the account for a quarry at Promachonas went on to describe the hills beyond Angistro before mentioning the woodland for woodpeckers that we were heading for. So we ended up in those hills first, well beyond where we needed to be. This is a vast area of scrub and low, sparse forest that needs a great deal of time or some specific hotspots, neither of which we had the luxury of. There were however huge numbers of Hawfinches here. We had grown used to coming across birds almost everywhere, even in small flocks, but here there were flocks of 30 or 40 flying over.
We retraced our steps back towards some of the woodland we had passed and sure enough found the site mention in the guide opposite the ‘BIG’ complex just 3km from the turn off the main road. By then we had already worked some of the older woodland that follows a stream by the road here picking up Green, Middle, Great and Lesser Spotted Woodpeckers, Long-tailed and Marsh Tits and more Hawfinches, all just a few metres from Bulgaria.
Closer to the main road, the small quarry is probably an excellent site in spring and summer and even now was alive with birds. In this case it was flocks of Corn Buntings, Woodlarks, Crested Larks, House Sparrows, Linnets and Chaffinches.
We had Rock Nuthatch on our minds and two sites were mentioned in the Sidirocastro area. Both turned out to be disappointing and not recommended for the species, at least at this time of year. The waterfall and quarry turned up a Grey Wagtail, a couple of Ravens and a cracking pair of Peregrines, the male showing off in the keen wind. The ‘ice cream rocks’ were worse still with no clear indication of where the birds might be. Perhaps a trip to the castle on top might be worthwhile but we decided to head south and try our luck in the mountains.
Deep snow accompanied our drive to the high ground at the Lailias ski centre so it was impossible to pull over anywhere until reaching the car parks. Other roads were impassable so it was not possible to reach other forested areas where Black Woodpecker is possible. At the ski centre (1600m) the forest was too dense to get a view across anywhere without a hard slog and I would not recommend making the trip in snowy conditions as we saw no birds.
The snow line at about 1000m was a different matter though. Here the terrain is open and unwooded with steep rocky ravines. A party of Woodlarks by the road had us out searching, which is how we came across fairly fresh Brown Bear prints and droppings.
Brown Bear Ursus arctos signs
This print was clearly large but it didn't dawn how large until we got home and did some measurements. Five claws are visible at the left, four in a line just right of the coin and a fifth just below to the right. The stick marks the rear of the print which stops at the interdigital pads. The proximal pads do not show, so the full print would be even longer. I think this is the right fore paw.
Close by was the poo. Small for a bear, but still consistent with the species. It's long and not twisted, blunt-ended and not tapered and contains plant remains. Note the partial print in the snow below showing three huge digital pads, each almost the size of the 1 Euro coin.
More tangible however was the array of birds in a gully just above the village of Ano Oreini. Here we were treated to amazing views of a Middle-spotted Woodpecker, 6 Rock Buntings and 2 Sombre Tits, among other birds.
Middle Spotted Woodpecker Dendrocopos medius
Rock Bunting Emberiza cia
If approaching this area from Serres, continue through Chrysopigi and past the petrol station to take the left turn signed to Lailias. Soon after take the first right at a junction marked with a small blue sign which has two arrows facing opposite ways each labelled in Greek. This heads back down to the village and alongside the gully to the right.
It was great to finish on a high like this and, although we still had some daylight, we decided it was time to head back towards Thessaloniki airport for our late evening flight back to Stansted.
All in all a great trip with 117 bird species and some interesting other wildlife, brilliant food and an excellent crew. Some fabulous memories from the land of the Hawfinch.
Hawfinch Coccothraustes coccothraustes
Click here for a full list of species