Saturday, 30 April 2016

Porto Lagos

I arrived at Porto Lagos around mid-afternoon with the rain that had started in Kerkini still falling, although only lightly. I have never been to Porto Lagos but had heard quite a bit about it over the years. When I first started birdwatching, in my early teens, all the talk form the older folk was of trips to the Camargue and tales of amazing birds they had seen there but in my mid-teens, before birdwatchers really went global with their hobby, Porto Lagos was the mythical location the experienced guys were talking about. 
Slender-billed Curlew had been a regular visitor in those days along with Broad-billed, Terek and Marsh Sandpipers. Birds of prey included Red-footed Falcon and Levant Sparrowhawk. I had more tales of the area when my good friend Paul Doherty, in his late teens, spent a month travelling around northern Greece.
So it was with some, entirely unrealistic, anticipation that I arrived yesterday. I stopped at the West Wood and scanned the area immediately noting three distant falcons circling high over the sand flats - distant views but definitely Eleonora's. I moved on to the salt works, which was closed and thought I had the same three raptors circling overhead but no these were Levant Sparrowhawks.
Levant Sparrowhawk - male and female
Carrying on my 'recce' of the area I headed for Mandra Beach, as I made the turning from the Xanthi road two yellow buntings popped up by the roadside, my first Black-headed Buntings of the trip.
Black-headed Bunting - male
The pools at Mandra looked good, and even better when a group of 32 White-winged Black Terns dropped in, flew around for a while then moved off East. A few minutes later another group of 64 appeared and did the same. What fantastic birds these are and great views even though it was getting late.
White-winged Black Tern
I stayed overnight at the Camping Natura site which is in a great location and could hear Little Owls and booming Bittern during the night.
Up early this morning and exploring the marshes on foot. Leaving the campsite at first light a Syrian Woodpecker was drumming on the small trees by the beach.
Syrian Woodpecker
More terns appeared first 15 Whiskered then 3 Gull-billed followed a little later by more White-winged Blacks, flying so close I could barely focus the camera!
Gull-billed Tern
There were hundreds of waders on the pools, many hidden but groups kept appearing. 
Ruff with a few Curlew Sandpiper and who knows what else!
Numbers were difficult to estimate but at least 200 Ruff, 100 Curlew Sandpiper, 50 Little Stint, 50 Spotted Redshank and at least 2 Marsh Sandpiper and quite a few Temminck's Stints. 
Spotted Redshank
Curlew Sandpiper
I managed some decent views and with both Curlew Sandpiper and Spotted Redshank coming in to summer plumage it's difficult to say which is the most attractive of these two birds - Spotted Redshank probably just gets it I think.
Marsh Sandpiper
Three or four Marsh Harriers were quartering the area causing the waders to rise in mixed flocks of 100 or more.
In a dryer area I came across a single pair of Spur-winged Plover, it looked like the female was probably siting on a nest so I didn't approach them. 
Spur-winged Plover
Although I have seen them in Israel and Turkey these were my first for Europe and they are only found in small numbers between Porto Lagos and the border with Turkey.
Well no Slender-billed Curlew, so far, but quite an amazing morning at Porto Lagos.
Not many passerines but Wood, Willow and Eastern Olivaceous Warblers plus Red-backed and Lesser Grey Shrikes, Spotted Flycatcher and a female Pied type that I would have like better views of.

Friday, 29 April 2016

Birding around Thessalonika

Whilst based at Kerkini we made a few trips to the coast, twice to Angelochori near Peraia, which is salt pans and a lagoon and once to Kalochori.
Angelochori didn't have much on the saltpans, around 20 Mediterranean Gulls and a handful of Avocet and Black-winged Stilt with a single Sanderling and a few Kentish Plover. There were Fan-tailed Warblers calling which for some reason don't appear to be at Kerkini.
Mediterranean Gull
Around the lagoon there were both Calandra and Short-toed Larks and the former gave very good views as they displayed over the heathy area. 
Calandra Lark
This area was also good for birds of prey, primarily Kestrel but I also had my first male Red-footed Falcon and Honey Buzzard of the trip and a single Hobby.
Red-footed Falcon - male
There were a lot of Pallid Swifts which appeared to be moving inland from the coast, in a strong wind this provided a good opportunity to get some photos of these fast flyers and with the sunshine the pale feather edgings to the body showed up a treat.
Pallid Swift
Kalochori also had a plenty of Mediterranean Gulls, around 100, and a few Slender-billed (20) but there were also more waders here with a mixed flock of around 70 Curlew Sandpiper and Ruff.
Curlew Sandpiper and Ruff with Black-headed Gulls
We also saw several Stone Curlew here and got good views of one bird. These are the first I have seen since Spain so it was good to see them reasonably close.
Stone Curlew
I'm writing this in Thessalonika Airport, dropping Pam off for her return flight to the UK. From here I am going East towards Porto Lago and the Evros Delta.

Wednesday, 27 April 2016

Lake Kerkini - Part 2

The weather changed on the 22nd April, after 5 days of clear blue skies it became overcast and we had some heavy rain overnight.
Returning from the airport with Pam we stopped at Mandraki Harbour where a party of 52 Glossy Ibis were busy washing, preening and wing flapping which indicates that they are probably recently arrived migrants.
Glossy Ibis
On the 23rd we took a boat trip out on to the lake which provided great views of the pelicans, although to avoid disturbing the breeding birds the boats keep a sensible distance away from the nesting areas. The water has been rising steadily for the past 3 or 4 days. This is controlled rise to fill the lake in order to provide water for crop irrigation through the summer but it does enable better boat access in to some of the areas where the cormorants, egrets, and herons sit during the day. 
Pelicans - White in the foreground and Dalmatian at the rear
Whilst on the boat we had a party of a dozen Whiskered Terns, which are my first for the area.
It rained again in the night and the following morning I did an early morning walk around where we are staying at Korifoudi. It was immediately apparent that there were new birds around, the number of Golden Oriole calling had risen dramatically, I estimated at least 20 in the immediate area. 
Golden Oriole - male
Birds noted on the walk were as follows;
Red-backed Shrike 4 males - new for the trip
Masked Shrike 1 male
Lesser Grey Shrike 2 - had my first of the trip yesterday
Lesser Whitethroat 1
Golden Oriole 20
Eastern Olivaceous Warbler 6
Turtle Dove 22
Black-headed Wagtail 2
Nightingale 15+ these have been around for some time.
Black Stork 1 giving superb views
Lesser Grey Shrike
Eastern Olivaceous Warbler
Red-backed Shrike - male
Black Stork
Not bad for a couple of hours walking around Korifoudi!
Driving around the lake we had several more Red-backed Shrikes and good numbers of Bee-eaters along with the usual pelicans, cormorants and herons.
I had hoped that by spending some time at Kerkini I would witness the arrival of migrants from the south and I had experienced just that.
I'll be exploring some of the other birding sites on the coast around Thessalonika over the next few days to see what they have to offer.

Friday, 22 April 2016

Lake Kerkini - Part 1

I'm writing this in Thessaloniki Airport, waiting for Pam who is joining me for a week at Lake Kerkini where we are staying in a beautiful hotel in Korifoudi, just outside the town of Kerkini.
I left Rohzen in the southern Bulgarian hills at around 07:30 on 17th April for the short journey to the Kulata crossing, as usual there were long queues of lorries but cars sailed straight through. No checks on the Bulgarian side and when I told the Greek customs official I was heading for Kerkini I got the strong impression that he would have liked to have gone with me as he waved me through.
It was only about a 45 mins drive to Kerkini from the border so it was still reasonably early when I arrived. My first stop was Mandraki Harbour, which has been my home for the last four days. 
Mandraki Harbour
The view from the harbour is stunning with hundreds of herons around the lake, scattered groups of pelicans, both White and Dalmatian and huge fishing parties of cormorants, both Great and Pygmy.
The first bird to greet me on my arrival was the Great Reed Warbler, with several birds singing in the Phragmites beds, next to where I parked. In the mornings they climb the reed stems to sing so give fantastic views whereas later in the day, although they are still vocal they tend to sing lower down.
Great Reed Warbler
Another new bird for the trip was Squacco Heron, there were 20-30 feeding around the edge of the harbour and on the large lilly pads, beautiful birds in the evening sunlight.
Squacco Heron
There are two birds in particular that Kerkini is deservedly famous for, both are globally scarce and Kerkini is a very important lake for them; Dalmatian Pelican and Pygmy Cormorant. When you visit some sites for specific species they can still  be difficult to see, like the Dupont's Lark, but not so with the pelican and cormorant, it would be impossible to visit and miss them. 
Dalmatian Pelican
Pygmy Cormorant - up close they look like they have eye make-up on, little white lines above the eye
Getting good photos is another matter however and I will be doing at least one boat trip with Pam during her stay.
The combination of pelicans and cormorants creates one of the great spectacles of the lake the mass feeding frenzy.
Cormorants and pelicans - feeding
Spring is well underway here, Nightingales are singing from almost every bush, or so it sounds, Golden Orioles can be heard around the lake and the calling of both Hoopoe and Bee-eaters is a constant reminder that this is the Med, if one were needed.
Bee-eater - living up to its name!
There are fewer duck and waders then I had expected, I've seen 4 Ferruginous and just one pair of Garganey. Wood Sandpipers can be seen in groups around the grassy margins and there are probably hundreds but they are difficult to see unless they fly. I've also seen Oystercatcher, 8 Black-winged Stilt, 5 Ruff and several parties of Common Sandpiper but no stints, so far.
Wood Sandpipers - with single Dunlin at the front
Birds of prey are also scarce but I've been compensated by good views of what I have seen. Single Lesser Spotted Eagle, female Montagu's Harrier, a very close Short-toed Eagle, a few Marsh Harriers and single female Red-footed Falcon plus several Kestrel.
Lesser Spotted Eagle - adult, quite long p7 but definately had pale iris so not Spotted
Montagu's Harrier - adult female
Short-toed Eagle
Most evening up to 5 Black Storks have come to feed on the marsh at Mandraki Harbour where there is also a single Cattle Egret.
Shrikes are also in short supply but I got very good views of Masked, which is one of the reasons I came so far south in to Greece on my 'trip north', fantastic birds which put on a great show the male passing food to the female. I've probably seen four or five Woodchats but that's it so far.
Masked Shrike - female
Masked Shrike - male
I hadn't met any other bird watchers since France and thought there would be plenty at Kerkini but I only met two other English birding couples Steve and Marion Holmes from Cheshire and a couple from Kings Lynn, both spending a week at Kerkini. It was very helpful to meet up with them to see what they had been seeing and I met Steve and Marion most evenings to share notes. Steve had 40 raptors one day on the south side of the lake including Eastern Imperial Eagle which I completely missed.
So plenty of birds seen, but plenty still to arrive. I haven't seen any 'marsh' terns, the only buntings has been Corn and Cirl and few warblers and flycatchers, only one Spotted Flycatcher a few Whitethroats and odd Eastern Olivaceous (Steve had one Olive-tree). So I'm hoping to see some new arrivals during my next week at Kerkini.
Sunset - Mandraki Harbour

Tuesday, 19 April 2016

Southern Bulgaria

Leaving Slovenia I was slightly apprehensive about crossing Serbia, not sure why, but I decided to cross the country in one go then into Bulgaria.
In the end my worries were unfounded, crossing the border from Croatia the roads after the border were rather bumpy and I thought this was a sign of things to come but the roads improved and the scenery for the first couple of hundred miles was much like Croatia with flat farmland as far as the eye could see. After Nis the scenery started to change and the countryside was much more undulating with green hillsides, colourful villages and a deep, long gorge as the Bulgarian border approached. It would be an interesting area to explore at another time.
I stayed overnight just outside Sofia, just by the crossroads where the road to Kulata and the Greek border starts. I followed the dual carriageway until it ended just short of the Kresna Gorge although it looks like the road will bypass the gorge in the future but for now it's shared with hundreds off lorries travelling in both directions. As I left Sofia I was concerned that I might not be able to find fuel but I have never seen so many petrol stations, they seemed to be every few kilometres presumably feeding the constant flow of lorries.
Kresna Gorge
The gorge is beautiful and I was soon seeing large numbers of butterflies, Scarce Swallowtail was one of the most conspicuous but there were blues, coppers and whites, which will have to be identified later.
Scarce Swallowtail
Nightingales were singing everywhere but were never easy to see, singing from the densest cover. 
Cirl Buntings sang from the tree tops and in the highest part of the gorge, Griffon Vultures sailed overhead.
Cirl Bunting
Before the motorway started again on the final 10 Kilometres or so before the Kulata crossing I turned left and explored the hillside up to Melnick and then on to Rohzen where I stayed a couple of nights.
Red-Rumped Swallow
I found Eastern Orphean Warblers, Golden Orioles, plenty of Red-rumped Swallows, my first Alpine Swifts and Tree Pipit of the trip and a lot of butterflies, Green Hairstreaks, even Common Glider and Camberwell Beauties but it wasn't until my last day that I finally found the Sombre Tit which was one of my target birds for the area, didn't manage a photo but got quite good views as it hopped around at the top of a large tree. 
So I leave Bulgaria, for now, and head for Greece and the famous Lake Kerkini which is fed by the Stroma River I have been following and is only about 40Km as the migrating birds fly.
Route so far

Friday, 15 April 2016

A few days in Slovenia

I left the Alps and drove almost none stop to Slovenia, driving through the Chamonix Tunnel then motorway passing Milan and Venice then just across the border to the small village of Vipava which is in a good location for bird watching in SW Slovenia.
On the way I stopped at services about 50Km west of Milan and recorded my first Italian House Sparrows of the trip. The males lack the grey crown of the House Sparrow we see in Britain.
Italian race of House Sparrow
The change is immediate once you emerge from the Tunnel and they appear to continue through most of northern Italy but the sparrows in Vipava had the grey crowns. I also noted that the Carrion Crows were of the 'hooded' variety from at least Milan so assume they appear also south of the Alps.
Hooded Crow
Slightly unexpectedly I also saw at least 6 Sacred Ibis in fields at the back of the service station. I had been given a location for this feral population of an African species but here they were at the services so no need to go any further!

Sacred Ibis
I had a look around the campsite area on the first evening and noted several Cirl Bunting singing as well as the usual Blackcaps and Black Redstarts that I hear at every stop.
The following morning (Wednesday 13th) I went to Lake Cerknica which is a large shallow winter flood area. There was plenty of water there during my visit with some large reedbeds from which I could hear several Bittern booming.
Lake Cerknica
The lake fringes had plenty of yellow wagtails, most were Ashy-headed (M.f.cinereocapilla) but I did see the odd Black-headed (M.f.feldegg) as well.
Ashy-headed Wagtail - taking off
Great-crested Grebes and Coot were the commonest waterfowl but there were a few male Garganey dotted amongst the reeds. There were very few other migrants other than Blackcaps and Chiffchaff which was disappointing. I tried a similar area nearby at Planina but that was dry. I did record my first Cuckoos of the year though.
The following day I decided on a trip in to Croatia, to the island of Krk from where Rock Partridge have been reported but there is some reasonable habitat for other birds.
Almost the first birds I saw after crossing to the island on a superb bridge were Black-eared Wheatears, these are of the eastern variety again with both pale and dark throated males. There was a lot of calling from the bushes which turned out to be Eastern Subalpine Warblers. These were calling every where and I couldn't guess at the numbers but certainly dozens. Singing Nightingales were also calling and singing in good numbers.
Eastern Subalpine Warbler - male note rusty upper breast and pale belly
Having failed to locate any Rock Partridge in the barren northern part of the island I drove south through a rather thickly vegetated middle to a more open and cultivated south. The area around Baska was good with Griffon Vultures over the cliffs, more Nightingales, my first Turtle Dove of the trip, Whinchat and a pair of Hawfinch which eluded the camera. In the town looking through the sparrows I saw several Spanish Sparrows which is a good record for the area I suspect as they have a very restricted range in Croatia which I don't think includes Krk.
Male Spanish Sparrow this angle also shows the two pale 'tram' lines on the back which aid ID
Back in Vipava in the evening I decided to move on and head in to Bulgaria where I will spend a few days before heading into Greece. I had planned to drive round via Hungary and Rumania but as I will be spending time in both countries later I am going to miss them out for the moment.
I have been struggling a bit with the IT side of things so apologies for any errors in these blogs.