Trip report - north Greece

17th May 2015
Dates: 6th to 16th May 2015

Destination: north Greece



Purpose of trip:

The purpose of my trip was to visit the regions of East Macedonia and Thrace, West Macedonia and Central Macedonia in northern Greece adjacent to the borders with Turkey, Bulgaria, Macedonia and Albania.

These regions provided the opportunity to see southern European coastal, lake and mountain species, many of which I had previously seen in Spain but also species at the western extreme of their range in south east Europe.

Primary target areas:


Map courtesy of Steve Mills at BirdWING (Birdwatching in Northern Greece)

The primary target areas for wildlife watching moving east to west were:

Evros Delta



The Evros Delta is located on the border with Turkey and covers a huge area of around 75 square miles, much of which was declared a Ramsar protected wetland site in 1974. Despite this and other designated protection, the Evros Delta faces major issues of freshwater management, overgrazing, overfishing, hunting and drainage.

The Evros Delta has a rich diversity of habitats including freshwater lakes, brackish and seawater lagoons, rivers, reedy ditches, tamarisk forest, sandy islets, swamps, reedbeds and a small area of riverine forest.

As such, it is one of the most important wetlands in Europe and offers excellent wildlife watching opportunities with 40 species of mammal, 28 species of reptile and amphibian and 46 species of fish. More than 320 bird species have been recorded and the biodiversity, as well as the presence of rare species, are characteristic of the Evros Delta. The geographical position together with the vast areas of natural habitats contributes to its value for wildlife.

The western section of the Evros Delta has free public access but a permit is required to visit the eastern section which is a military designated zone adjacent to the border with Turkey.

Dadia Forest and southern Evros hills

The Dadia-Lefkimi-Soufli Forest constitutes one of the most important protected areas in Europe, since it hosts a variety of habitats such as pine and oak forests, shrublands, networks of streams, pastures and cultivated fields.

Due to these characteristics, the forest presents an ideal habitat for birds of prey: Dadia Forest hosts 36 out of the 39 diurnal raptor species of Europe and 3 out of the 4 European vulture species. Among the latter, the Black Vulture, whose only reproductive colony in the Balkans is to be found in Dadia, constitutes the area’s flagship species.

Porto Lagos area

This area consists of a wide range of habitats including saltpans, pools, woods, farmland, a large lake and shoreline offering a wide range of species.

Nestos area

The Nestos River rises in Bulgaria and flows for around 145 miles before reaching the sea. There are 4 areas worth a visit: the gorge, the Chrissoupoli lakes, the delta lagoons and the riverine forest leading to the river mouth.

Mount Paggeo

Mount Paggeo is located west of Kavala and is easily reached by the road which rises to the ski centre. At around 6500 feet high, the route and summit areas are excellent for mountain birds.

Mount Vrontou

Mount Vrontou is located north of Serres and is another site easily reached by the road which rises to the ski centre. At around 5900 feet high, the route and summit areas are excellent for mountain birds.

Lake Kerkini



Lake Kerkini is one of the most important wetlands in Europe and is considered to be one of the top European birding destinations due to the wealth of resident, breeding and migratory birds. It is situated along the migratory flyway for birds en route to the Aegean Sea, the Balkan region, the Black Sea, the Hungarian steppes and beyond.

Lake Kerkini is located close to the border with Bulgaria 25 miles from Serres and 60 miles from Thessaloniki, and it is surrounded by Mounts Belles and Mavrovouni. It is approximately 9 miles long and its maximum width, when full, reaches 5.5 miles.

Lake Kerkini is an artificial irrigation reservoir fed by the Strymon River that was created in 1932, and then redeveloped in 1980, on the site of what was previously an extremely extensive and uninhabitable marshland.

More than 300 species of birds have been recorded in the area, including 140 resident species and 170 species that migrate through every year on their way to the Aegean Sea, the Black Sea, and the Balkan region.

Prespa lakes



Prespa lakes constitute 2 freshwater lakes located in the north west corner of Greece and shared by Greece, Albania and Macedonia. Of the total surface area, 68.07 square miles belongs to Macedonia, 17.88 square miles to Albania and 14.05 square miles to Greece. They are the highest tectonic lakes in the Balkans, standing at a height of 2,798 feet.

The Prespa lakes are separated by a narrow causeway. The Great Prespa Lake (Megali Prespa) is divided between Albania, Greece and Macedonia. The Small Prespa Lake (Mikri Prespa) is shared only between Greece and Albania.

The lakes and the area surrounding them are well known for their natural beauty and they offer a wonderfully rich diversity of habitats, from deep water, shallows, reedbeds, wet meadows, farmland, forests, hills and mountains. The area hosts 40 species of mammals, 260 species of birds, 32 species of reptiles and amphibians and 17 species of fish including a number of endemic species.

Around Thessaloniki …. Gulf of Thermaikos

There are several sites south of Thessaloniki on both the western and eastern shores of the Gulf of Thermaikos

Getting there:

I flew from London Gatwick to Thessaloniki with Easyjet.

The cost of return flights including baggage and taxes was £99.51.

The schedule was as follows:

6th May: London Gatwick to Thessaloniki – depart 05:55 a.m. and arrive 11:10 a.m. (local time GMT+2)

16th May: Thessaloniki to London Gatwick – depart 11:50 a.m. and arrive 13:15 p.m. (local time UK)

Getting around:

At Thessaloniki airport, I hired a Hyundai Accent for 10 days from Budget booked in advance. The cost of car hire was £156.86 reduced by cashback to £138.74.

The car proved to be very reliable and economical returning around 47 mpg with petrol at an equivalent £1.07 to £1.12 per litre compared with £1.15 per litre in the UK.

During my trip, I drove 2703 km (1680 miles) and driving in Greece proved to be a generally enjoyable experience other than the congestion in and around the city of Thessaloniki. The west-east A2 (Egnatia Odos) motorway was generally much quieter than UK motorways and the rural roads of northern Greece were very quiet although the road quality with frequent uneven surfaces, potholes and subsidence meant careful navigation on occasions.

I travelled independently following thorough research and preparing an itinerary before leaving the UK:

6th May: outward flight, pick up rental car, Lake Ismerida, Tycheró

7th May: Evros Delta (west)

8th May: Avas gorge, Avas railway station, Evros Delta (east), Loutros Hill

9th May: Kapsalo radio mast, Dadia Forest, Dadia village area, old Loutros road, Thimaria pools

10th May: Porto Lagos area, Nestos area

11th May: Mount Paggeo, Mount Vrontou, Lake Kerkini

12th May: Lake Kerkini

13th May: Lake Kerkini, Prespa lakes

14th May: Prespa lakes

15th May: Gulf of Thermaikos

16th May: return rental car, return flight

Accommodation:

Prior to my trip, I had pre-booked the following accommodation via booking.com and expedia.co.uk

6th to 9th May – Tycheró: Hotel Thrassa – £100.91 for 4 nights



This wonderful guesthouse full of character and with its warm welcome from Sofia and Platonas her Golden Retriever is situated right next to a lake and is surrounded by a large garden complete with calling Golden Orioles, Nightingales, Scops Owl and frogs. Its location is ideal for visiting the Evros Delta and the Dadia Forest, both of which are within easy driving distance. Hotel Thrassa provides exceptional value for money and is highly recommended.

10th May – Krinides: Hotel Yannis – £21.84 for 1 night



This hotel overlooking the plains of Philippi and Mount Paggeo is located in a convenient stopping off point to visit the mountain areas en route to Lake Kerkini. Whilst it provides clean and comfortable rooms and facilities, the barking dogs, who eventually stopped at just gone midnight but started again at first light, were especially annoying!

11th to 12th May – Akritochori: Villa Belles – £73.36 for 2 nights





There is nothing traditionally Greek about this modern hotel but it is clean and comfortable. The views from the room balconies are spectacular with a wide and interrupted view over the nearby Lake Kerkini. This hotel definitely wins the “birding from a balcony” award! The owner of the hotel, Alex, is keen to promote northern Greece and Lake Kerkini in particular and I will be seeking him out again at the Rutland Water BirdFair in August 2015. Villa Belles is highly recommended for its location and close proximity to Lake Kerkini.

13th to 14th May – Agios Germanos: Hotel Varnous – £43.68 for 2 nights



This small guesthouse is located in the small and pretty village of Agios Germanos just a few miles from the Prespa Lakes. Hotel Varnous provides exceptional value for money and is highly recommended for its location and close proximity to the Prespa lakes.

15th May – Thessaloniki: Hotel Olympia – £36.38 for 1 night

This modern hotel is located in the centre of Thessaloniki and is an ideal and good value choice for a last night before a return flight (or a first night or city stay).

Research and planning:

Prior to my trip, I had undertaken a significant amount of research and planning and therefore had a detailed itinerary which I largely kept to.

Northern Greece has been visited by birders for some years and as a result there are a number of Internet trip reports provided by others.

However, I found the following 2 books to be invaluable in terms of both pre-planning my itinerary and as guides whilst travelling in northern Greece. Both are highly recommended.

“Birdwatching in northern Greece” by Steve Mills available from BirdWING (Birdwatching in Northern Greece)




“Finding birds in northern Greece” by Dave Gosney available from Easybirder



The Gosney book, as with all his publications, is available with an accompanying DVD.

In addition, “ Birding in Greece: Travel Guide to birdwatching sites in Greece” published by the Hellenic Ornithological Society covers the whole of Greece but has specific chapters on the principal sites of northern Greece.



I also used Michelin regional map 737 covering Greece in addition to my trusty TomTom satnav.

Impressions, experiences and memories:

The overwhelming memory from this trip is the staggering diversity and abundance of wildlife in a wide variety of habitats. I felt the same when I returned from other trips to southern and eastern Europe and such experiences suggest how impoverished much of the UK environment and countryside has become in recent decades.

Furthermore, rural northern Greece is stunningly scenic right across much of the 3 regions that I visited.

I typically found the Greek people to be genuinely friendly and courteous. Whilst not everyone spoke English, particularly older people and in the more remote rural areas, my efforts to at least try a few words of Greek did seem to be appreciated. I sincerely hope that Greece and its people overcome their immensely challenging economic and political difficulties.

Unfortunately, there were 2 issues during my trip that created a much less favourable experience: litter and dogs!

Many areas from the coastline to the mountains, including areas of valuable wildlife habitat, suffer from large amounts of litter and fly tipping ranging from paper and plastic items to larger items such as old domestic appliances and cars. It is regrettable that some elements of the population do not seem to appreciate their natural environment and dispose of or recycle refuse in a more responsible manner.

With regard to dogs, the number of wandering domestic, stray and feral animals is significant. Apart from the general nuisance, including barking at all times of the day and night, many of these dogs appeared to be in a poor state of nutrition and health. Fortunately, I did not encounter any problems with Greek Shepherd Dogs. Whilst these huge dogs undoubtedly perform a valuable function in terms of protecting sheep and goats from potential predators, according to some other trip reports they also allegedly have a keen desire to aggressively chase birders!

Weather:

The first few days were very hot and sunny with temperatures of around or over 30°C resulting in evening thunderstorms. The remaining days were also mainly hot and sunny with temperatures of around 24°C to 27°C. The coldest day was the 11th May with a maximum temperature of only 18°C accompanied by rain, a thunderstorm and a hail storm!

Wildlife highlights:

During my trip, I was able to record 169 species of birds.

Trip records - northern Greece

Of these, I saw 19 species that I had not seen before.

In addition, I saw 57 notable species i.e. birds seen before either as a single UK vagrant or on a few occasions in the UK plus birds seen before elsewhere in Europe.

The 19 “lifers” were:

Great White Pelican
Dalmatian Pelican
Pygmy Cormorant
Long-legged Buzzard
Levant Sparrowhawk
Rock Partridge
Spur-winged Plover
Scops Owl (heard only)
Syrian Woodpecker
Black-headed Wagtail
Rufous-tailed Rock Thrush
Eastern Orphean Warbler
Eastern Subalpine Warbler
Olive-tree Warbler
Eastern Olivaceous Warbler
Sombre Tit
Western Rock Nuthatch
Masked Shrike
Black-headed Bunting

The 57 other notable species were:

Little Bittern
Black-crowned Night Heron
Squacco Heron
Great White Egret
Purple Heron
Black Stork
White Stork
Glossy Ibis
Spoonbill
Greater Flamingo
Ferruginous Duck
Black Vulture
Egyptian Vulture
Lesser Spotted Eagle
Short-toed Eagle
Booted Eagle
Black Kite
Honey Buzzard
Lesser Kestrel
Red-footed Falcon
Black-winged Stilt
Collared Pratincole
Kentish Plover
Marsh Sandpiper
Yellow-legged Gull
Gull-billed Tern
Black Tern
White-winged Black Tern
Whiskered Tern
Pallid Swift
Alpine Swift
Hoopoe
European Bee-eater
Roller
Middle Spotted Woodpecker
Crested Lark
Short-toed Lark
Calandra Lark
Crag Martin
Red-rumped Swallow
Tawny Pipit
Water Pipit
White Wagtail
Black-eared Wheatear
Blue Rock Thrush
Barred Warbler
Great Reed Warbler
Penduline Tit
Red-backed Shrike
Woodchat Shrike
Lesser Grey Shrike
Golden Oriole
Spanish Sparrow
Hawfinch
Ortolan Bunting
Cirl Bunting
Rock Bunting

During my trip, I was also able to record:

5 mammal species: Wild Cat, Red Fox, Coypu, Brown Hare, Southern White-breasted Hedgehog (road casualties only)

3 snake species: Large (Caspian) Whip Snake, Dice Snake, Montpellier Snake

5 lizard species: (Eastern) Green Lizard, Balkan Green Lizard, Common (European) Wall Lizard, Erhard's Wall Lizard, Glass Lizard

2 frog and terrapin species: Marsh Frog, European Pond Terrapin

1 salamander species: Fire Salamander

1 tortoise species: Hermann's Tortoise

I am not entirely confident of the snake and lizard species seen. My identifications may be wrong and I may well have also seen additional species.

This was an exceptionally good trip! A trip list of 169 species of birds, including 19 “lifers”, far exceeded that achieved on any of my other European trips including those to southern Spain.

Disappointments:

As far as birds are concerned, there were several target species that I missed, the principal ones being Ruddy Shelduck, Isabelline Wheatear, Eleonora’s Falcon and Eagle Owl, all of which would have been “lifers”.

The other species that I expected or hoped to see but missed out on were:

Griffon Vulture
White-tailed Eagle
Osprey
Golden Eagle
Montagu’s Harrier
Hobby
Hazel Grouse
Stone Curlew
Tawny Owl
Black Woodpecker
Grey-headed Woodpecker
Lesser Spotted Woodpecker
Wryneck
Sardinian Warbler
Savi’s Warbler
Crested Tit
Short-toed Treecreeper
Nutcracker
Alpine Chough
Serin

Tips

From my own experience, I have a few miscellaneous tips for anyone considering a trip to northern Greece.

I found that the peak times for birding were early in the morning or in the evening. Midday and during the afternoon was usually much quieter in terms of bird song and in addition heat haze presented its own challenges.

A visit to the eastern section of the Evros Delta requires some essential pre-planning before leaving the UK. This is a military designated zone adjacent to a sensitive border with Turkey and a permit is required for entry via one of the military checkpoints. Permits can be obtained free of charge by e-mailing the Evros Visitors' Centre (info@evros-delta.gr) 2 to 4 weeks in advance and providing your name, passport number and dates of intended visit. Permits are then collected in person from the Evros Visitor Centre in Traianoupolis.

The west-east A2 (Egnatia Odos) motorway is a quick and easy way to cross northern Greece but it should be noted that it has cash only toll booths. If you do not have any cash (as was the case when I arrived at the first toll booth), the staff take all the relevant details and you are able to pay at another toll booth within a specified period of time.

Navigating around northern Greece, and I guess any part of Greece, could potentially be difficult in that different road maps and road atlases have different spellings for the same location and these do not always correspond to road signs. In addition, whilst the vast majority of road signs are written in both their Greek and English versions, there are a few in remoter rural areas where only the Greek is used. However, I had no real problems by using a mixture of my satnav, the detailed maps in the Steve Mills and Dave Gosney books and the Michelin map.

Photos

Photos from my trip can be found in the European trips gallery

Comments

Photo comment By Geoff Laight: Great report. Thanks for this Richard 👍

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