Sunday, September 09, 2007

Lesvos 10-17 May 2007 trip report

All images of Lesvos and birds shown by Nick Goatman

At last I can publish the trip report for this destination, thanks to Phil Shepherd for writing it up in his usual style and to Nick Goatman for some rather excellent images. The heat of the day was used wisely if not a little frantically around the pool on some days, the food was a hit and the birding great. Thanks to all who went on the trip, I am glad you all got your target lifers.

Martin J McGill


10th - 17 May 2007

The Group:
Phil Shepherd (Driver/Guide)
Liz Tipper (Honorary mum/group stabiliser)
Dave Paynter (General oracle/font of all knowledge)
James Lees (Entertainment/aurally-impaired bird finder)
Mike Smith (Gentleman/Godfather)
Steve Owen (Chief Scientific Advisor/wry observer)
Nick Goatman (Best photographer/top ticker)

Day 0 – Gloucestershire to Gatwick
Wednesday 9th May
We took a phone call on the way to Gatwick from Richard Brooks (acknowledged expert on birding in Lesvos), who told us it hadn’t rained on the island for a year, that the wetlands had virtually dried up, and crowds of birders were jostling for position around what little water remained. Despite having this dose of pre-departure apprehension injected into the group, spirits were high. Phil and Dave then recorded a new experience on night one – sharing a bed at the Gatwick hotel, with Liz as chaperone.

Day 1 - London to Lesvos
Thursday 10 May

The outward journey to Mytilini, the island’s capital, went without hitch and to our relief Lesvos looked verdant as we flew in - not the scorched landscape we’d feared. The weather on arrival was perfect – clear and sunny, but not too hot. Our 9-seater Fiat Escudo was waiting for us and we were soon on the road heading west toward our base for the week at Skala Kalloni.

Forty minutes or so from the airport lies the island’s biggest reedbed at Dipi Larsoss. This site yielded Black Stork (1), Long-legged Buzzard (2), Falco sp. – probably Lanner, but too brief/distant to confirm, Black-headed Wagtails, Common Terns, Alpine Swifts, Olivaceous Warblers and an extraordinarily high density of Nightingales along the banks of the river that feeds the reedbed. A Marsh Warbler was heard amongst nettles.

We reached our hotel, Kalloni 2, late afternoon, drank the complimentary red wine and gathered around the map to agree a proposed itinerary for the week. Lesvos is a decent size (Greece’s third largest island) and supports a range of habitats. One week is only just long enough to visit its best areas. Everyone was keen to get on with some more birding, and a stroll around Skala Kalloni beach and the West River provided Little and Common Terns, Grey Heron, Kentish Plover, Stone Curlew, Crested Larks and more Black-headed Wagtails looking stunning in the evening light. The first (of many) Black-headed Buntings was singing merrily on a wire on the way back to the hotel giving most folk in the group a new species.

The lure of the hotel pool proved irresistible (particularly to Dave, James and Phil) and the habit of an evening swim was born. This habit was to become a predominant feature of the week.

Our first Greek feast was taken at the nearest Taverna to the hotel, Bar Enigma, before adding two more species to our list – the (in)famous tame White Pelican near the harbour, and Scops Owl heard calling near our hotel.

Day 2 – Kalloni area
Friday 11 May
Poor Mike had a terrible first night, spending the majority of it in the bathroom. Roommates Steve and Nick inevitably didn’t get much sleep either, so with a couple of bleary-eyed individuals and one recovering in bed, we set off for possibly the prime birding site on the island - Kalloni East River. We spent the entire morning exploring this area. Around the lower reaches we saw Curlew Sandpipers (some in full breeding plumage), Temminck’s Stint, Little Stint, Wood Sandpiper, Ruff, Ringed and Little Ringed Plovers, Grey Plover, Moorhen, Great Reed Warbler, Common Tern and Little Tern. Water levels in the river were indeed very low and although bird migration was clearly still underway, overall numbers were relatively poor.

At the northern end of East River we found Black-winged Stilt, and around a nearby small quarry, Black-eared Wheatear, Bee-eater, Masked Shrike, Great Spotted Cuckoo, Sub-Alpine Warbler, a distant Cretzschmar’s Bunting and our first tortoise of the trip. Returning down the river we saw Little Egret, two distant Short-toed Eagles, Long-legged Buzzard and a female Little Bittern.

A long lazy lunch around and in the pool was very welcome and gave James the opportunity to inform us that his ears were blocked – this was to develop into a source of amusement for us for several more days. Mike had surfaced by now, but was still suffering and needed to sit out (!) the rest of the day. Nick went for a wander around the hotel and returned with another tick under his belt – an Icterine Warbler near the beach – and news of breeding Rufous Bush Chat just around the corner. We all got to see the chats, nesting in scrubby tamarisks, and also saw a Black Stork on West River.

Black Stork

Late afternoon/early evening was spent at the Kalloni Salt Pans. This site represents the largest area of open water on Lesvos and stays wet year-round. Curlew Sandpipers and Little Stints were abundant, and along with approx 280 Greater Flamingos, Avocets with chicks, Black-winged Stilts, Ruddy Shelduck, Great Crested Grebe, Great White Egrets, Black and Whiskered Terns, Grey Plover and Turnstone, this is a excellent Mediterranean (albeit human-made) wetland. The adjacent fields produced Marsh Harrier, Kestrel, Collared Pratincole, Red-rumped Swallow, Short-toed Lark, Red-backed Shrike, Stone Curlew (5, all found by Steve) and lots of Bee-eaters.

The very helpful guy, who could speak good English, working at the pharmacy in Kalloni negated our anticipated sign language session and sorted us out with some potions for Mike’s predicament. We found Mike in better shape back at the hotel, looking forward to getting some birding done tomorrow.

We ventured a little further towards town for tonight’s evening meal, finding a really nice place on the seafront. James had by now taken to pouring olive oil in his ears whenever the chance arose.

Black-headed Wagtail

Day 3 – Potamia & Napi Valleys
Saturday 12 May
Steve, Phil and a re-invigorated Mike made an early jaunt to the East River, adding Cormorant, Squacco Heron (at the ford) and a Harrier sp. to the trip list. Views of the harrier weren’t good enough to clinch its identity: it was a female Montague’s/Pallid type. Dave found a Squacco during his early walk to West River, indicating a passage of this species.

Today’s main destination was the Potamia Valley, a short drive west of Skala Kalloni – a very scenic and peaceful spot. We quickly found ourselves in high quality habitat watching Red-rumped Swallows, Red-backed and Woodchat Shrikes, Cirl Buntings and Sombre Tits. Short-toed Eagle, Buzzard and Sparrowhawk were seen along the valley ridges. The target species here is Olive-tree Warbler and we soon started hearing some singing from an area of likely looking mixed olive/oak habitat. Masked Shrike and displaying Sub-alpine Warblers were also here. Most of the group eventually got glimpses of this elusive bird, but James’ blocked ears meant he couldn’t echo-locate. With rising temperatures and a frustrated James, we headed back down the valley to the sanctuary of our wonderful hotel pool. We stopped en route to investigate a small reservoir (with lots of Little Grebes on it) and heard Orphean Warbler singing from the adjacent scrub, but couldn’t pin it down.

Dave, James and Steve treated us to a diving display at the pool through the afternoon. This activity had the added bonus of dislodging half of James’ problem – namely one earful.

Another known Olive-tree Warbler site is the Napi Valley, northeast of Kalloni. Climbing up through the hills past the traditional villages of Paraskevi and Napi, we saw Middle Spotted Woodpecker and Hoopoe amongst the olive groves, plus our first squashed glass lizard (a long, legless snake-like reptile) in the road.

Napi valley was very scenic and peaceful and we quickly found Rock Nuthatch, Black-eared Wheatear, Red-backed, Woodchat and Masked Shrike. Driving into the heart of the valley, we eventually located an Olive-tree Warbler nest site which had been described to us by other birders. We found the nest itself, and after a short wait, were treated to exceptional and prolonged views of this notoriously shy species.

Late afternoon raptor movement turned up Common Buzzard, Booted and Short-toed Eagle, with the unexpected addition of two Ruddy Shelduck circling the hilltops. Driving back towards Kalloni through the forested hills in the evening, we spied a distant falcon. We stopped and kept an eye on this bird which made its way closer and closer to the group and, to our huge delight, turned out to be a male Red-footed Falcon and perched amongst dead branches about 50m away. Stopping in Paraskevi village, James saw a Little Owl on one of the municipal buildings.

We ate out tonight in a souvlaki speciality joint near the village square in Skala Kalloni. The owner was a gesticulative soul, but got the night well underway with a round of free ouzos.

Day 4 – The Wild West
Sunday 13 May (World Migratory Bird Day)
We set this day aside for a grand exploration of the western half of the island. This is the drier side with a much rockier and relatively barren appearance. Our first stop was to scrutinise a squished bundle of feathers in the road which turned out to be the remains of a Nightjar. Leaving the olive groves and pines behind, we stopped again to examine another dead bird in the middle of the road. James got out and gave the peculiar crake-like creature a gentle tap with his foot causing it to spring to life and stagger away. James’ expert ID skills confirmed it to be a young chicken – fresh off the back of one of the poultry wagons that ply the island.

A quick stop at a steep-sided rocky gorge produced nesting and displaying Rock Sparrow, Rock Nuthatch and Red-rumped Swallows. Several falcons passed by high up, at least some of which were Eleonora’s Falcon. Blue Rock Thrush and Masked Shrike were seen here too.

At the road junction just prior to the remote, high and lonely monastery at Ipsilou, we found Isabelline Wheatear, whilst a short raptor watch produced Lesser Kestrel, Hobby, Goshawk and Marsh Harrier (plus Raven). A female Golden Oriole added some excitement amongst some nearby poplar trees.

An hour or so around the tiny monastery, perched up on a rocky outcrop, gave us great views of Cinereous and Cretzschmar’s Buntings, and a real bonus of two distant spiralling Griffon Vultures over the hills to the west. This is a rarity on Lesvos, and possibly only the 5th record. The hoped-for line up of migrant warblers and flycatchers at this spot didn’t materialise today - just one each of Willow Warbler and Blackcap were found. Woodlark and Orphean Warbler were seen by some of the group.

Calling in briefly at the petrified forest site en route, we arrived at the pretty and unspoilt harbour village of Sigri on the far west coast in time for lunch. From the café we saw Whiskered Tern and Shag fishing in the harbour, with Lesser Kestrel flying past, and a flock of Jackdaws (not common on Lesvos). A long and lazy lunch ensued, centred on fresh seafood, whilst watching a fisherman spend forever pulverising an octopus against the harbour wall. We had a quick wander around the village after lunch and found a beach now earmarked as a potential cooling-off spot for later.

Next we explored an area to the north of Sigri centred around Faneromeni beach. This is quite a remote part of the island and is renowned for its ability to host a heavy passage of migrants in the right conditions. Some later migrants were still passing through, most notably Squacco and Spotted Flycatcher, but we also saw Ortolan Bunting, several Rufous Bush Robins and a stream of Yelkouan Shearwaters offshore.

We returned to Sigri for an ice-cream stop and James, Dave and Phil gave in to temptation and went for a swim in the cool, crystal clear water at Sigri beach. The seabed here was dotted with sea urchins, the discovery of which sent James into comical swimming overdrive to keep his feet from the floor.

The final leg home in the evening took us through some wild country along the rough track between Sigri and Eressos. Dave found a superb Lesser Grey Shrike in a fig grove, but the highlight was being able to watch two male Little Bitterns right next to a purple Heron less than 20m from us in a tiny pool.

Feeling adventurous, we tried yet another restaurant in Skala Kalloni, this time right on the beach near the main square.

Day 5 – Achladeri
Monday 14 May
Today’s target was Kruper’s Nuthatch, and after breakfast we headed to the Achladeri area a short drive south and east of Kalloni. After a few wrong turns and the services of a friendly local, we pulled off the road into the area of mature Calabrian pines, near the army base, known to hold this species. We very quickly located a family group feeding busily, and enjoyed watching these lovely birds, plus other adults in the area, for over an hour.

Mid afternoon was spent lazing by the pool in the still glorious weather.

We stopped at the Inland Lake (a freshwater lake near the Potamia Valley) and tried again for Orphean Warbler near the reservoir here in the evening. The lake didn’t produce any waterbirds (though it was crammed with terrapins and marsh frogs), but we did see the warbler. We checked out Parakila marsh nearby just before dusk, hoping for crakes – no luck with those, there was a Water Rail with chicks and nesting Black-winged Stilts.

A major discovery was unearthed this evening in the form of the Ambrosia restaurant just off the square in Skala Kalloni. This place had it all – traditional (and cheap) greek food, run by a very friendly family, and plenty of free drinks! James and Phil diverted to the beach-front bar on the way back to the hotel, where Phil suffered an unexpected dent to his ego after being asked by the Athenian barmaid if he was James’ father.

Day 6 – Petra and the North
Tuesday 15 May
We took a pre-breakfast trip back to the Orphean Warbler site at the new reservoir in the Potamia valley, and Parakila marsh to try again for crakes with the sun behind us this time. Still no luck with crakes, but we saw Little Bittern in flight.

After breakfast we headed due north on the road to Petra. We stopped at the well-known lay-bys between Petra and Molyvos for Ruppell’s Warbler, finding a family group, plus Orphean Warbler and Blue Rock Thrush, all with a lovely coastal scenic backdrop. We took the rough track eastwards along the north coast towards Skala Sykiminia, and were soon intrigued by a sign for the hot springs at Eftalou. In need of a cool-off, a few of us went for a dip in the sea whilst others had a walk or some coffee, but curiosity got the better of us and the decision was made to investigate the thermal springs – a tiny building right on the beach housing a sunken ancient stone bath fed by hot spring water. Alternating between the hot bath and the cold sea every few minutes was an exhilarating experience to say the least, made all the more memorable by the fact the bath was shared with folk who had, shall we say, chosen Lesvos for reasons other than our own.

Further along this track we stopped at a gorgeous little café next to the beach for lunch. Liz, Dave and Phil tucked in to some wonderfully fresh fayre (no menu – just point) whilst others birded locally, finding Blue-headed Wagtail and Marsh Warbler. Passing through the extremely picturesque Skala Sykiminia on the coast, we then turned back inland and headed up into the hills above for some more raptor watching. Some birds were just too distant for confident identification (though some were more than likely Honey Buzzards), but we did better views of Short-toed Eagles, Buzzard and Long-legged Buzzard from a ‘bandstand’ structure at the side of the road.

We returned to base via Pelop and Stypsi, spent some more time at the pool, and then shot off on foot to West River when Steve broke news of a Spur-winged Plover there. This bird showed wonderfully down to 20m –a real highlight. Some small flocks of Rose-coloured Starlings had been seen over at East River, so we pressed on to watch these very entertaining birds feeding in a favoured mulberry tree.

Spur Winged Plover

The evening saw us back at the Ambrosia restaurant!

Day 7 – Vatera and Polichnitos
Wednesday 16 May

We set off at 6.00am heading south to Vatera on the south coast. We picked up breakfast from the bakery in Kalloni on the way and by 7.30am were watching Cory’s and Yelkouan Shearwaters in perfect light and warm, calm conditions from the headland just west of Vatera. This was James’ idea – and a very good one. One adult and one immature Audouin’s Gull flew close by, but the stand-out moment was when an adult Greater Flamingo came hurtling in off the sea! A White Wagtail was found picking its way around the rocks. After a round of coffees (which won the prize for silt content) at the harbour side café, we headed back north towards the salt pans at Polichnitos, seeing Sardinian Warbler (briefly) on the way.

The pans were, sadly, all but deserted, giving us the perfect excuse to get back to the pool. Much expert diving from Dave and James enlivened the afternoon, before we headed back out to the Kalloni salt pans for some evening general birding. James and Nick spent time photographing a brood of Kentish Plover and the hilarious sight of a parent Black-winged Stilt brooding its young, with 8 tiny legs protruding from her belly feathers. Short-toed Lark, Tawny Pipit, Stone Curlew, two drake Garganey and Curlew were all seen. Phil had a close encounter with a glass lizard, mistaking it for a snake, panicking and running around squealing like a fool.

We watched some local men riding horses bareback around a track for some time before we moved off at dusk to try the grove of mature eucalypts just north of Kalloni for Scops Owl. We had tried this site a number of times already during the week, but this time after a few whistles a bird replied and flew into branches over our heads, showing at least as a silhouette for a several minutes.

Our final evening was spent, perhaps predictably, at Ambrosia.

Cinerous Bunting

Day 8 – Heading Home
Thursday 17 May

Realising that Chukar had evaded us; we drove up to the north end of East River before breakfast but were unsuccessful. We had a last look around Kalloni salt pans, checking on the wader broods from yesterday, and paid a final visit to the East River near the ford. Dave had wandered off from the main group and reminded us who’s boss by finding a Gull-billed Tern flying upriver.

Some last minute shopping and a final dip in that wonderful pool marked the end of a truly memorable and enormously enjoyable week on Lesvos.

I would like to take this opportunity to thank Martin McGill for enabling this trip to happen, to say a big Thank You to the group for making the week such a great laugh, and to thank James in particular for his help in navigating us around the island.

Phil Shepherd