Saturday, May 10, 2008

Lesvos - 17-24 April 08

I usually write my own trip report, but for this week one of the group members had been assigned/volunteered the task so I was more than happy to see how one of hte trip particpants saw one of my guided Lesvos weeks for a change. So here is Neil Bew's report from my first of three weeks on Lesvos this spring.

Take it away Neil . . .

Participants : David B and Mary, Dave C, Neil, Michael, Geoff, Ron, Peter, Simon, Frank, Alan and Marion, Dave N and Jackie.

Tour Leader : Steve Dudley

The annual escape of some North West Surrey RSPB Memberss Group to foreign parts this year took us to the Greek island of Lesvos (or Lesbos). The island is in the north east of the Aegean Sea some five miles from the coast of Turkey, which wraps itself around the east and north of Lesvos. I will try to convey an impression of the island, its geography, environment and people as I go but this is (at this time of year at least) a green and rather mountainous site characterised by a mix olive groves, woodland and particularly in the west, a more barren, rocky appearance. It covers about 630 square miles which is, for example, around four times the size of the Isle of Wight.

Lesvos has been attracting birders for some years now, none more so than our tour leader, Steve Dudley, who has been leading bird trips here since 2000. I seriously doubt that any other birder knows this island as well as Steve and if you really want to know more about this beautiful place and its birds, I strongly suggest you visit Steve’s website

Day 1, Thurs 17 April
Twelve group members were joined this time by Dave and Jackie Nurney, who of course became honorary members for the week. Dave in any case is from our part of Surrey originally and certainly seemed to know Papercourt better than I do! Dave is also the illustrator of the field guide that I always carry in the UK (A Pocket Guide to the Birds of Britain and North West Europe) so I was very interested to see what Dave was like.

We caused the usual chaos at the check in but all was handled by a smiling, patient check in assistant who was unfortunate enough to catch us again at the boarding gate. However, having checked in and loaded our cases onto a grilled trolley (conveyor belts not working), met Steve, Dave and Jackie in the departures lounge and walked across the tarmac to the aircraft (tunnel thing to the aircraft not working) we took off for the three and a half hour flight (aircraft working perfectly).

Landing at Mytilini (the capitol of Lesvos) was followed by the usual scrum at baggage collection, collecting the two hired nine seat minibuses and heading west towards our base for the week, Skala Kollonis. However, to get the group in the mood, we stopped at a small estuary overlooking Geras Bay called Dipi Larisos. Highlights here included two Kingfishers, a fairly rare sight at this time of year, Whinchat and a Black-headed (Yellow) Wagtail. It was also here that the ‘brown rule’ was explained by Steve; if it’s brown and on a wire, it’s a Corn Bunting, it it’s brown on the ground is a Crested Lark and if it’s brown and sticking its head in mud it’s a Wood Sandpiper. I’m not sure if that is exactly the right quote but the sentiment was conclusively demonstrated over the next week!

The road to Skala Kallonis was punctuated by a typically sharp birders emergency stop as Ron called ‘Chukar!’ Two birds in fairly untypical habitat made for my first ‘lifer’ of the trip with everyone in the first bus getting good views of this very similar relative of our Redlegged Partridge, not replicated by the second bus.

Check in at the excellent Hotel Pasiphae was followed by dinner at the equally excellent Taverna Dionysos where we were to have our evening meals during the week. In the end we forgot the name Dionysos and simply called it Georgio’s after its brilliant host.

And that was that for day one; a day of travelling and a day of getting to know our two honorary members and tour leader, ended by a good dinner and going to sleep to the sound of the endlessly singing Nightingales right outside our rooms!

Day 2, Fri 18 April
A number of the group rose early for a pre-breakfast stroll to the Skala Kallonis Pool, an area of muddy pools and reed some 100 metres or so from the hotel. Some even got up so early that it was pre-daylight! I emerged at a more leisurely 6.15 for the trips first Purple Heron, Squacco Heron and Garganey. Steve emerged at an even more sensible 6.55 and immediately issued a red card (for serious misdemeanours) to the entire group for missing the Red-footed Falcon that he saw and we didn’t. However, the bird put in a repeat performance and we retired to breakfast.

Post-breakfast saw bus no 1 (Steve, Dave N, Jackie, Ron, Dave C, Geoff and me) heading for Metochi Lake with bus 2 in leisurely pursuit, “come on Mary (who was driving), “keep up” was an oft repeated sentence throughout the week! Metochi Lake is a small, reed and scrub fringed lake west of Kalloni and today held one of my target species for the week in the shape of a female Little Crake. We managed to get nice views of this secretive crake as it stepped carefully through the edge of the reeds before disappearing entirely from view. The lake also held a number of a Stripe-necked Terrapins and it was a bit strange just to see the heads swimming along whilst I was intently studying the reed edges looking for crakes. Now here’s a cry you won’t here often; “Ruddy Shelducks mobbing Short-toed Eagle!” Ruddy Shelducks apparently nest on rocky hillsides and they clearly weren’t impressed by the close attentions of the eagle. We also had the week’s first Night-heron at the lake before heading back to the hotel to pick up the packed lunches.

The plan then was to head off for Achladeri, boosted by the amazing sight of 35 Night-herons and a Black Stork flying over the hotel before we left! Achladeri proved to be a wooded site close to the coast on the east side of the Gulf of Kalloni. If anything, it reminded me of the beautiful Caledonian forest of Scotland with pine trees and brighter clearings a feature. We were here to find Krüper’s Nuthatch, a small, fabulously beautiful nuthatch with a rusty-red breast patch and a seriously obvious pale supercilium. We were just as likely to pick it up hanging from branches in tit-like fashion as in the more familiar bark hugging pose of ‘our’ nuthatches. Steve picked up the call first and we were soon enjoying good views of perhaps three birds. Moving up to the top of the hill above the Krüper’s site, we also had some practice at picking out Alpine Swifts from their Common cousins, not just because of the white undersides but they also have a steadier, almost falcon-like flight. Other birds to note included Black-eared Wheatear, Cirl Bunting, Short-toed Treecreeper and the trips first of many Masked Shrikes.

We then took a track towards the River Glaros, our planned lunch stop, picking up Woodchat and Red-backed Shrikes along the way (a hat-trick of shrikes in about half an hour!). Lunch was taken looking down the river at a Black Stork, but the best part was watching migrating hirundines; Barn and Red-rumped Swallows looking fabulous against the red-and-yellow of a Lucerne field and with of the Gulf of Kalloni as the ultimate backdrop. I may not have captured Steve’s request at this point; “I hope you’re capturing the ambience of the moment Neil!” but it was something of a show stopping vision (the swallows not Steve).

Polichnitos Saltpans held little except for a lone Green Sandpiper and a large group of ‘yellow wagtails’ featuring three of the different races; Black-headed (feldegg), Blue-headed (flava) and our very own race, flavissima. with the green/yellow head . Vatera, on the south coast, held five Bee-eaters, defying Steve’s “they’re a week early” and we moved up into the Ambeliko valley. We parked and walked slowly up a twisting track in what felt like the very Mediterranean surroundings of low walls, olives and hillside vegetation. This path produced our first Cretzschmar’s Bunting; a neat grey head marked with orange throat and sub moustachial stripe and deep orange underparts. This is a really attractive bunting, and I spent some time looking at this bird and indeed listening (it sounds very like a Yellowhammer). As it turned out, Cretzchmar’s are quite common on the island and we saw several most days. This walk also gave us very good views of the normally skulking Subalpine Warbler with a singing male perched on top of a bush displaying a rich red throat and white moustache. I also got myself told off by a local for, I think, not keeping to the track. At any rate, I heard the word ‘ashpheltos’ (?) and successfully (and genuinely) played ignorant! Two Golden Orioles, a Blue Rock Thrush, and Sardinian and Eastern Orphean Warbler completed the best birds from a very enjoyable stroll.

We drove back towards the Kalloni Saltpans for our first good look at this very large complex marked by a huge heap of salt that could be seen for miles. Picking up Great White Egret on the way at Mesa (or Derbyshire as some unthinking Brit birdwatcher has dubbed it), we arrived at the Pans at around 6.30 for a quite stunning finish to our first full day.

Firstly, we counted (actually Frank counted) 143 Black-winged Stilts and no fewer than 337 Avocets. A lone Stonecurlew, two Ruff, two Greenshank and 36 magnificent Greater Flamingos weren’t exactly shabby! To this, we could add six Whiskered Terns, 23 Gull-billed Terns and a Lesser Kestrel. However, it was the appearance of a flock of 32 Night-herons (perhaps from our flock this morning?) that started the real fun. Moments later, a flock of Purple Herons (yes a flock!) totalling 53 birds took to the air from behind us and astoundingly joined the Night-herons in flight (along with two Curlew and four Whimbrel). I have never seen a flock of Purple Herons, or indeed any herons, let alone a mixed flock of Purple and Night herons totalling some 85 birds. It appeared Steve hadn’t either; “this is better than sex!” said our somewhat excited guide. The short drive back to the hotel produced our second Little Owl of the day having also been one of our first birds on the drive to Metochi Lake. A truly wonderful finish to a fantastic day.

Day 3, Sat 19 April
After breakfast we briefly stopped again at Metochi Lake for a Little Crake re-run, together with a beefy Great Reed Warbler and a Woodchat Shrike standing out beautifully against the green background of the hills. A drive up the Potomia valley followed (Black- eared Wheatear and Raven) before reaching a spot known, for obvious reasons, as the ‘Scops Copse’. Apparently, this is also one of the few places on the island where the local constabulary set speed traps and it is then known as Cops Scops Copse!

The roadside spot has very few trees but enough to make finding a roosting Scops Owl very tricky. Unless that is you are the local with a vague interest in birds and no binoculars who pointed the bird out to us! Perhaps 20 feet up in a sheltered nook in the tree, the owl did not seem disturbed at all the attention coming its way and many of the group obtained good photographs both conventionally and through scopes.

10.15 found us at the Kalloni ‘bandstand’. Overlooking Kalloni, and placed on a high hairpin bend, the bandstand has a reputation for producing migrating raptors as they head north through the centre of the island. However, migrating raptors were not to prove a feature of the week and we had to settle (?) for Rock Nuthatch, Subalpine Warbler, Cretzchmars Bunting, Black-eared Wheatear, Orphean Warbler and a single White Stork.

We continued on towards the town of Petra on the north coast, where we stopped for a ‘proper’ toilet break (the first in eight years at this stop according to our leader). The stop proved worthwhile both for the obvious reasons but also giving good views of displaying Long-legged Buzzards. However, we were on our way to a known Rüppell’s Warbler site. This bird is a lot like Subalpine but instead of the white moustache cutting through a red ’hood’, the same marking cuts through a jet black throat and face. A really attractive warbler and one I was very keen indeed to see. The site is on a scrubby slope overlooking the sea to the east of Petra and is itself overlooked by a odd building known as ‘Tracey Island’. Fans of Thunderbirds must remember the launch-pad on a remote island and all I can say is that this house is dead ringer for the original. Dave N kept the myth going by yelling “Thunderbird 4!” (small yellow car parked at the Rüppell’s site). But did we see the bird? Of course we did, just as described, although it did give us a bit of a run around before giving good views. That face pattern really is outstanding; if you don’t know what a Rüppell’s looks like, check your field guide right now. Other good birds here included crag martin, cirl bunting and a migration of Spanish Sparrows (or spuggies as Steve and eventually all of us came to call them).

Lunch was taken in a taverna in the town of Molivos and what a lunch; a seemingly endless supply of different dishes provided by the ever helpful Stratos who used to work at our hotel, and therefore well known to Steve. We perhaps spent more time here than originally intended and we certainly ate more than we originally intended!

Suitably refreshed, we headed east along the north coast track. Clearly in need of a decent walk, we left the buses behind and strolled for a mile or so along the track overlooking steep, wooded slopes and of course the Aegean sea towards Turkey. We had more excellent views of Subalpine and Orphean Warblers together with brief views of Turtle Dove and Sombre Tit (aka sombreros as Steve calls them). We also had nice views of another Little Owl in a ramshackle farm building, an area which also included a fence post with a curiously still Persian Squirrel. I did express the opinion that it might be stuffed and perhaps even nailed to the gatepost but it did eventually move. Persians are the only squirrel on the island being something of a cross between our red and grey versions. A little further down the track, Dave B found a dead raptor of some sort and decided to investigate. On picking up the raptor, a snake shot out from underneath and Dave shot back almost as quickly. Lesvos does have a poisonous snake or two and I guess Dave didn’t hang around long enough to find out if this was it!

Distant views of Yelkouan Shearwatera rounded off this part of the day and we returned to the buses. We added one more stop on the north coast which allowed Steve to catch a Glass Snake (a legless lizard rather than a true snake) and show it to those of us wanting a closer view (and avoided completely by a couple of the group) and then headed back south to the Kalloni Saltpans.

As is the habit with the pans, they afforded something different from the previous visit. We stopped at a seasonal pool at the southern end and immediately found some Red-throated Pipits. These are well-named birds, imagine a Meadow Pipit with a vivid brick-red throat and upper breast (although the extent of the red does vary). We could also hear Quail from this spot, a bird I have never actually seen and in truth, don’t expect to, so secretive are they.

Looking out onto the pans proper, with flamingos in the background, we added a few Curlew Sandpiper, Little Stint, Kentish Plover and Sanderling to our trip list. We also had closer views of two Stone-curlew and of course, Avocet and Black-winged Stilt. Driving back to the hotel over the Tsiknias River Ford found us another Squacco Heron and that ended another amazing day birding.

The evening meal was as ever taken at Georgio’s, following which we headed back to the hotel, spotting the resident White Pelican on the harbour side. Apparently some local had taken exception to this bird and driven into it, breaking its leg. The Lesvos Wildlife Hospital had taken it in and nursed it back to health although with drastic consequences for the leg, prompting the question from Steve, “Can you see its amputated leg”! (think about it!).

Day 4, Sun 20 April
Today we were to head west to look for migrants, Isabelline Wheatear and Cinereous Bunting. Before that, we had an abortive attempt to find a Blue-cheeked Bee-eater (only the fifth record for the island) before breakfast. Now, clearly the creative juices of Steve and Dave N were flowing this morning because at different points on the way west, we were treated to Monty Pythonesque sketches and a birders version of the Fast Show. The top part of the morning however was the production of a short song suitable for the day. To the melody of “Go West” by the Village People (or the Pet Shop Boys if your music tastes run to eighties covers):

Go WEST - for ci-n-e-r-eous
Go west – for some izz-ie wheats
Go West – for some mi-ga-rants
Go west – for a ta-ver-na lunch


Bus 1 sang this at full volume to the occupants of bus 2 whilst standing on the side of a road overlooking a monastery! I hope the monks were impressed.

Talking of monasteries, the next stop was at Ipsilou Monastery, sitting atop a reasonably high, steep-sided mountain and visible from some way off. Here we were anticipating the Cinereous Bunting. What we did not anticipate was a howling wind which eventually pushed us into the shelter of the hill on which the monastery stands. Of migrants, there was little sign. However, we did get good views of the desired bunting, an essentially grey bunting but with a lovely lemon-green head and the typical bunting paler sub moustachial stripe. The song of these birds is a bit like Reed Bunting without being quite so monotone. Isabelline Wheatears (paler versions of an immature female northern wheatear), Blue Rock Thrush, Rock Sparrows and a passing female Montagu’s Harrier made this a very worthwhile stop. Moving on, we drove along a dirt road (many of the island’s roads are still unsurfaced), known as the ‘cattle track’, stopping at various points along the way. The track didn’t add much in truth and we arrived at the Meladia River Ford around 11.30 in need of another walk. The ford area, a small area of scrub, a couple of pools and an olive grove, was again largely devoid of migrants, but did contain a Sombre Tit nest, allowing us all excellent views of this understated, but still smart member of the tit family. The nest itself lay in a small, rusting metal gatepost, not quite what I had envisaged as a typical nesting site for any bird.

Lunch was again taken in a taverna, this time called Australia, in the town of Sigri. Lunch was deliberately lighter than previously although still very enjoyable. A quick wander around the Museum of the Petrified Forest revealed, via a series of maps showing seismic activity in the region, just how many ‘fault’ lines there are in the region. This brought home that this is still a much more unstable area than anything we are familiar with at home. We decided to forget passerine migrants for the day (because we had so fsar failed to find any) and head back to the saltpans, via an unrewarding stop at a large reservoir called Pithariou. A few more Cretzschmars Buntings (“a Cretzschmar’s a day helps you work rest and play” D. Nurney) along the way and we found ourselves driving down the Tsiknias River track, west of the saltpans. This gave us our first really good views of Bee-eater, a dozen or so perched on an isolated tree making occasional sorties to harass the local insect population. Once we had had our fill of these spectacular birds, we drove on towards the saltpans, adding a lone but very elegant Mmarsh Sandpiper to the list along the way.

This time, we merely glanced over the seasonal pool and walked out onto a grassland area, between the pans and the sea, known as the ‘sheepfields’ or the Alykes Wetlands. More Red-throated Pipits (up to a dozen this time) but also a Short-toed Lark provided ample confirmation of the grassland nature of the site. The Short-toed Lark has the typical dumpy lark structure but is very pale, unstreaked below and sparsely so above with a clear, wide supercilium. Out over the pans, we could see Little and Common Terns fishing and of course, the ever present flamingos providing a marvellous backdrop. Back to the grassland and Ron (I think) found a Collared Pratincole. This is a truly stunning wader, a pale sandy coloured throat bordered by a clean black line and obvious red patch at the base of the bill. In flight, pratincoles look like big but equally agile House Martins and in this case, displaying the red-brown underwing which confirms our bird as a Collared Pratincole rather than its cousin, the Black-winged Pratincole.

Another quality bird, found by Dave N this time, was a Temmincks Stint, a duller but still nicely marked version of the more familiar little stint. More views of Great White Egret, Little Ringed Plover, Kentish Plover and Ruddy Shelduck completed the day and we headed back, well satisfied, to the hotel.

Day 5, Mon 21 April
Today, we started on the eastern side of the Tsiknias River, towards the river mouth. Star bird here was the Bee-eater, 18 of them to be precise. We had of course seen these birds before but today, they gave us brilliantly close views, landing in a field in front of us. However, this spot had its own version of NW Surrey comedy drama to serve up.

Imagine if you will bus 1 moving swiftly back up the dusty track away from the Bee-eater site; Steve looks in the mirror and not for the first time wonders audibly where the other bus has got to. At this point, the walkie talkie (did I mention we have a pair of those Woolworths walkie talkies to keep the two vans in touch?) crackles into life and Mary says “no mud on our windows.” “Why?” replies Steve. “Because we’ve got it everywhere else!” replies Mary, echoed by everyone in our bus; they were stuck. Frank had apparently noted the somewhat bumpy exit of our bus and decided on an alternative route.

As happens at moments like this, cool, experienced heads now take over. Answers on a postcard please from anyone who spots the error in the following plan. Alan suggests that they “place sticks under the wheel, put the bus into second and reverse out”. A slightly different version of this plan did succeed in extricating the bus however and they soon joined up with hardly any micky taking from the rest of us.

Drama over, the two minibuses head around to the east side of the saltpans to allow the morning sunlight to cascade over our shoulders. The light was indeed perfect, bringing out pink patches of the flamingos. This side of the pans also produced one Spotted Redshank, 25 Greenshank, the usual Black-winged Stilts and Avocets, Black Stork, marvellously close views of a female Marsh Harrier, a more distant Montagu’s Harrier and our second Green Sandpiper.

At around 11.00, we head up the Napi Valley which runs from the saltpans, right through the centre of the island to the north coast. A good migrant funnel therefore although migrants, be they raptors or passerines, were still not a big feature. However, we managed our first Wood Nuthatch (same species as we have) in the lower part of the valley, at a nest site, along with an Egyptian Grasshopper, so big that I actually thought it was a small bird when I first saw it flying.

At the head of the valley, an area known as Platania, we parked up and strolled for a mile or so to our lunch spot in a lightly wooded, scrubby area known later in the year for Olive Tree Warblers. Before we got that far, we had a Hoopoe from the vans, stood by the side of the track apparently being stalked, if that’s the right word, by a Glass Snake. The snake had no luck and we enjoyed good views of this amazing bird, familiar enough to Mediterranean travellers but always an exotic sight for the Brits (the last one I had seen had been in a housing estate in Gosport; not the same thing really). On the walk, we picked up more Golden Oriole, another Rock Nuthatch at a nest, Woodchat and Masked Shrikes and a distant Goshawk.

After a more than pleasant lunch serenaded by Masked Shrike, we headed back towards the saltpans, via a slightly frustrating stop for Middle Spotted Woodpecker (where we got glimpses, but no good views of Lesvos’ only woodpecker) and also a welcome ice cream stop. Goodness knows what the locals thought of a dozen strange looking people festooned with optical gear descending on their village and loitering about the street eating ice creams, but it was a good break for us.

The pans, specifically the sheepfields, did, as so often on this trip, produce something new for us. The by now ‘normal’ Red-throated Pipits, Short-toed Larks and Kentish Plover were joined by a single Tawny Pipit. These are paler, certainly planer pipits than the Meadow and Tree Pipits we are used to.

Having a little time on our hands, we decided to make a return visit to the Scops Copse for a repeat viewing. Our bird was in the same spot of the same tree as before. This time, we pretty much had the owl to ourselves with no other birders or bird groups in attendance.

Day 6, Tues 22 April
Day six began with a journey straight to Ipsilou monastery. No stops by the road for singing songs this time (bus 2 never did come up with a rival tune) but non stop for the monastery. Amazingly, it was even windier than last time and I felt like I was going to be knocked over as I climbed out of the bus.

However, Ipsilou gave us a couple of genuine migrants. First up, a female Pied Flycatcher, not very active by flycatcher standards (or at least that’s my excuse for taking an age to catch up with this bird). I did however catch on very quickly to a Wood Warbler, something of a favourite of mine, with the lovely yellow throat contrasting with white undersides. These birds have a good habit of singing from the same spot for a long time, allowing even a moderately skilful birder such as myself to track them down at Hindhead for example. At least, Ipsilou was revealing some migrants. It also revealed exceptionally close views of Rock Sparrow with the big supercilium and central crown stripe almost shouting at us from just a few yards away.

This time, we headed to the top of the hill on which the monastery sits with an intention on Steve’s part to see if we wanted to view the monastery building itself. A distinct lack of interest nearly caused us to move off without even exiting the bus but someone did get out and immediately shouted ‘falcon!’. Our falcon was using that tremendous wind to hold station as it hunted. This was a big bird by falcon standards and we considered peregrine but the bird was not really bulky enough. What we had was an Eleonora’s Falcon. These are specialists of Mediterranean islands with very long, very pointed wings which, when swung backwards, reached to the tip of the tail. A magnificent sight.

Heading back towards the coastal village of Sigri, we turned of onto a road bordering Sigri fields. The fields and an associated area of trees produced spotted flycatchers with a good number of lesser kestrels giving excellent views. Slightly more surreal was a largish lorry, full of chickens, blasting out a bit of local music by way of a loud speaker on the cab roof. The lorry moved slowly passed us, turned around and disappeared back towards town, still blasting out the music. We went the other way and almost immediately latched on to a slim harrier. To my inexperienced eyes, our bird resembled a female Montagu’s Harrier. The experts in the bus (Steve and Dave N) however labelled the bird an immature (I think 2nd calendar year) male but were still undecided as to which species. But with salient features noted, a check back at the hotel in the Macmillan Birders Guide to European and Middle Eastern Birds confirmed this to be a 2nd year Pallid Harrier. The clincher, as I remember it, was this bird’s plain underwing as opposed to a barred underwing of a similarly aged Montie’s. By way of light relief, we disturbed a Marsh Harrier from its lunch of a Yellow-legged Gull just after losing sight of the mystery harrier.

The afternoon saw us heading back down the ‘cattle track’ to the Meladia River Ford. Some of the group had an Ortolan Bunting and certainly all of us managed really good views of another Wood Warbler. Rather harder to spot, indeed I didn’t, was an Icterine Warbler picked up first by Frank. These birds, together with Spotted Flycatcher, Pallid Swift, and Tree Pipit, did suggest some movement was in progress. However, the site was marked by another identification poser that turned into a fascinating and instructive discussion. The bird in question was originally, and tentatively called as a female Spectacled Warbler, had it stayed as such, this would have been a rare sighting for Lesvos never mind the group members. Steve seemed very troubled by this. However, following very good views and a consultation with the Collins Bird Guide later and Steve finally settled on a less exciting female Sardinian warbler. Look in your field guides and you will see the similarities between the two ‘sylvia’ warblers but with one big difference: spectacled has a definite rufous colouration to the secondaries and wing coverts (in common with the male) with the ‘sard’ much duller. After a brief stop in Skalla Eresou, we headed back towards our Skala Kallonis base but this time via a headland/beach area of Makara which forms the western headland of the Gulf of Kalloni. Having received instructions from Steve to look for ‘mobile boulders’, otherwise known as Chukar, we duly saw one and then were bizarrely passed by a car out of which sprang a young man clearly intent on catching the Chukar. This he failed to do (he had no chance in truth) and we moved on down the track (via yet another Little Owl) to the beach. Star bird this time was Black-headed Bunting. Bright yellow with a black ‘executioner’s hood’, this bird gave everyone really good views and was certainly worth lingering over. A tethered donkey also seemed to take a bit of a shine to Ron who, as is Ron’s way, was talking to the animal and just generally being nice to it. The donkey clearly missed Ron as we moved away as it continued a series of loud, disappointed calls long after we were out of sight.

If all this wasn’t enough, Alan called us all together, announced that it was he and Marion’s 36th wedding anniversary and as they also had 36 life birds for the week at that point, he would buy the first round in the bar that evening! Quite a day one way or another.

Day 7, Weds 23 April
Back at the Tsiknias River for the start of our last full day on the island, we began with a flypast of Mediterranean Gulls. Yet more Bee-eaters were almost ignored (seen a few of those this week). A Long-legged Buzzard sitting on a telegraph pole presented an opportunity for the digiscopers among us but also gave excellent views for the rest.

Still sticking to the river bank, but a little further inland, we left the bus behind and strolled for a while. The river bed revealed the inevitable Wood Sandpipers (remember the brown rule) but also gave us another marsh sandpiper, two more Temmincks Stints and at least one Little Ringed Plover. However, we spent most time tracking down another Ortolan Bunting amongst the Spanish Sparrows in an adjacent dusty field. Really, really attractive buntings these, complimented by two equally attractive Whinchat, inevitably sitting on a fence.

It’s 10.00 and time to head back to Metochi Lake, the site of our Little Crakes from earlier in the week. A mere ten minute journey which mysteriously takes us half an hour. A rare wrong turning by Steve leads to a tour of the back streets of Kalloni (probably) but we do make it to Metochi. We were greeted by our second skinned goat of the day and it dawns on us that the Greek Easter celebrations are due Sunday which explains the proliferation of goats either skinned or being skinned. Turning away from such delights, the terrapins in the lake have been joined by another species, European Pond Terrapin, and our female Little Crake has turned into a male, creeping in and out of the reed edges and around the terrapins.

Time now to drive, with occasional stops, up the Potamia Valley. I can’t say that we had anything new through the valley but you can’t help simply liking the place. Initially quite open, the valley seemed to me to narrow until we reached our idyllic lunch stop. This found me perched on a rock by the side of a river (does this make me sound like a frog?) being serenaded by a number of other frogs. Frank decided to be Indiana Jones (or even Steve Dudley) and try to catch a snake with its head in the water. I wasn’t witness to the attempt but I believe the snake slipped away before Frank got close enough.

Eventually leaving the lunch stop behind, we woke up another village with another (noisy!) ice cream stop (an essential feature of any NW Surrey foreign trip) and headed back to the salt pans.

The pans again gave us good views of all the waders we had seen over previous days including another marsh sandpiper and a testing task for the groups arch counter, Frank. Steve called Frank over; “you see that spit over their? Well it’s not a spit” ‘It’ proved to be some 400 Ruff packed close together in shallow water. Moving out onto the sheepfields again, Steve started talking about the lack of snipe and wondering aloud about the possibility of great snipe. Immediately (and I do mean immediately) after this comment, we saw our first snipe of the week! Close examination proved it to be a Common Snipe but is was a good attempt to conjure up a genuine rarity. Best of all, the flamingos took to the air. A stunning sight that was too; I can only imagine what it is like to see thousands of these birds in the air on some remote African lake.

A bit of information received sent is back to the Tsiknias River Ford where we enjoyed good views of a Little Bittern, a bird seen by some of the group earlier in the week on the Skala Kallonis Pool but only now by most us.

Day 8, Thurs 24 April – the last day!
What were the odds on a quiet last day? No chance. The flight wasn’t due to leave until early evening so we had a good half days birding still to enjoy.

Steve had a report of Olive Tree Warbler (a week early) at Platania and truthfully, there was no decision, we had to try to see this. Olive Tree Warbler has long been on my wish list and although many of the group had seen one in Bulgaria the previous year, it would be a life bird for many. The song is a lot like Masked Shrike (indeed as the year progresses, they mimic each other) but Steve was confident he could hear one and soon we were all enjoying terrific views. We even managed to see the bird through scopes, a really rare occurrence for a bird that either skulks or moves around a lot (or both). This is a big warbler, the size of a Great Reed Warbler although not, as Steve pointed out, quite as bulky.

Driving away, we added another Hoopoe and amazingly, a Roller. Now this is another bird that shouts for attention, a bright blue crow sized thing with a red/brown back; quite a sight.

Now, it was back to the Krüper’s Nuthatch site at Achladeri, in part for another view of this small but brilliant nuthatch, but also because we now had reports of Long-eared Owl. Following a quick conversation between Steve and a photographer already at the site and we were soon viewing a Long-eared Owl and two well grown chicks, obviously out of the nest and rather calmly viewing us as we viewed them. Moving only a few yards had the group loosely grouped, at a reasonable distance, from a thin tree stump with telescopes lined up on a hole towards the top, at say head height. The Krüper’s, a male, duly arrived and fed the female who was presumably sitting on eggs. The area looked liked it was being set up for some sort of Easter celebration so I guess the birds were in for a disturbed Sunday. They are however still being reported as I write this more than a week after my return.

However, it was time to move back to the saltpans, this time on the west side. We soon piled out for White-winged Black Tern. In anyone’s language, these are cracking birds, black bodies with persil-white contrasting wings. We had 30 or so of these brilliantly attractive marsh terns, all against the continuing backdrop of the flamingos, stilts and Avocets that have illuminated the salt pans for us all week.

One last lunch stop followed, back at the Kalloni bandstand, enough to give us our closest views of Short-toed Eagle and end the holiday on a high. Honourable mention should be made of Jackie at this point, who had been set the task (by Steve) of finding her own Nightingale with no assistance by the rest of the group, notably Dave. This she achieved on this very last day of the trip, neatly tying up a running theme for the week.

In all, the group saw just over 150 species of bird during the week, not to mention a good few species of butterfly, insects and the odd mammal. Outside of the mere number, the quality was exceptional.

I had been looking forward to this break for quite some time. Some of the group had been to the island before and I believe all of us will want to go back at some point. It was a week filled with the usual NW Surrey mix of brilliant birds, brilliant company and not a little brilliant food. Steve’s passion for the island and enjoyment in showing ‘his’ island to other people shone through loud and clear. Thank you Steve.

Neil Bew
NW Surrey RSPB Members' Group

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