BIRDING TRIP REPORT:
Greece: Lake Kerkini area
18 April to
23 April 2016
Last year I had made a successful
spring visit to Turkey in
search of Brown Fish Owl etc. Having acquired a taste for
eastern European birding, this year I thought I'd try another
area not too far away. For almost as long as I can remember, the
pelicans, pygmy cormorants and other water birds to be found in
various lakes in Greece and the old Yugoslavia had interested
me. However Lake Prespa in
north west Greece seemed very remote and of course the Balkan
war ruled out any thoughts of a trip to Yugoslavia.
Much more recently I became aware of the relatively new site of Lake Kerkini in Greece which seemed to tick
several boxes. It was within
easy reach of an international airport with scheduled flights
(Thessaloniki) and had boat trips. Nearer the time I found it
also had some very tempting
other birds - most notably Grey-headed Woodpecker that would
complete my set of all the European Woodpeckers.
Although this area is only about 1 hour's drive
north from Thessaloniki, it is certainly not a tourist area and
accommodation is somewhat limited. After a somewhat hectic
schedule on previous recent spring trips, I decided it
was time to stay put so I planned to stay in one place close to
the lake and not to move during my
five nights in the area. However it didn't quite work out like
that, more of which later.
English was not widely spoken especially in the
local restaurants but at least English menus were available
which helped to some extent.
Mid April was a convenient time for me to visit
but I was also tempted by a suggestion (in the book by Steve
Mills) that Collared Flycatchers
pass through the region and "peak" in mid April. In the event
there was however little sign of any passage at all, let alone
anything as exotic as Collared Flycatcher! In fact as others
remarked, around the lake there seemed
to be a dearth of warblers, shrikes and the like, perhaps due to
the relatively early date. Maybe mid May would have been better
in that respect.
With good weather and good sunny conditions for
photography much of the time, I spent a fair amount of time out
and about, from shortly after sunrise until just before sunset,
although sometimes with a breather in the middle of the day. In
many places, using the car as a hide worked well for photography
and the two boat trips I went on in the late afternoon also
provided good photo opportunities.
British Airways fly direct from Gatwick to
Thessaloniki and I was able to get a remarkably good deal this
early in the season mainly because I managed to get £100 off in
exchange for some BA miles. This left a balance to pay of only
£50 for the return fare! The outward flight left at a
challenging 06:50, so not being keen on ridiculously early
starts I stayed nearby at the efficient, modern Courtyard Hotel
(with lift). This
did me very well and was much better than the Stanhill Court
Hotel we'd stayed at prior to our
Trinidad & Tobago trip last year. Even so, I was up
early for the airport hotel bus at c. 04:45, which only took
about 15mins to reach the north terminal. The return flight left
Thessaloniki at a much more civilised time around midday. The
food outbound wasn't up to much as is usual with BA these days,
but I was pleasantly surprised by the lunch on the way back.
Both flights were surprisingly full.
I used SixT which
seemed to offer a reasonable price on the full size cars that I
prefer. The rental desk was just outside the arrivals hall but I
had then to go upstairs before getting a short shuttle transfer
to the hire car compound. The car I got had plenty of leg room
and was in good condition and was good to drive.
As with most recent trips, I relied almost entirely on my SatNav,
using lat, long (GPS) coordinates I had stored in advance mainly
from the Steve Mills book and the Gosney booklet (see below)
both of which have GPS coordinates. I also had a 1:250,000
Topo 250 map of the
area - called Macedonia, R4 Greece Regional Maps, purchased from
Stanfords which was helpful in showing me roughly where I was, and the
general lie of the land.
The book by Steve Mills "Birdwatching in Northern Greece"
was very useful for the Lake Kerkini area while the Gosney
booklet, "Finding Birds in Northern Greece" had rather more
information in it about the nearby Mount Vrontou which was however disappointing
birdwise. Unlike some other recent trips, online trip reports
seemed to be of limited value and added little to the
information available in the Mills and Gosney publications.
I was very
fortunate with the weather which was mainly warm or even hot up to
32°C on the second day, with plenty of sun particularly later in
the week. This made for good photographic conditions,
particularly early mornings and the last couple of hours before
sunset when bird activity was noticeably higher.
All the pics shown
below were taken with my DSLR equipment - Canon EOS 7D Mk II with
EF400mm/f4 DO lens (often with a x1.4TC) or my EF400mmf5.6.
All pics were taken in RAW format, and I use NeatImage for
noise suppression, with PhotoShop Elements 9.0 for
subsequent processing. For further details see the equipment and image processing pages elsewhere on this website.
Coast near to Thessaloniki
lunchtime I thought I would pay a quick visit to the coast, even
though it was in completely opposite direction to my ultimate
destination of Lake Kerkini. The best site sounded to be
Anglehori, as described in the Mills (and Gosney) books. This
wasn't far from the airport and took perhaps 20mins.
Angelohori Plain and lagoon
I found the salt
pans easily enough but there seemed no obvious access to them
and the lagoon beyond on foot or by car. With stray dogs in
the adjacent car park, I thought I'd try the plain to the south
instead which is described better by Gosney than Mills. However
the SatNav wasn't brilliant and kept on trying to take me down
un-driveable tracks but eventually I succeeded in reaching it.
This area contained a fair amount of water and gave the
immediate impression of being quite "birdy" even from the road,
with masses of Crested Lark,
Black-headed Wagtails, a Buzzard,
Kestrels, Corn Bunting, three
Turtle Doves and a small flock of Wood
Sandpipers put up by a flock of goats (which was to be
a recurring theme of this trip). Unlike the Gosney suggestion of
walking from his site 4, I carried on along the track to the
sea, then turned right and followed a driveable track as far as
it went, passing a small beach-side taverna. At the far point
(see GPS coords above) I was almost at the SW corner of the
lagoon, which seemed pretty birdless from what I could see over
the intervening bank. However the plain inland from the track
was far from it, with a pair of Stone Curlew
close by the road. There was also a flooded area, where a channel had been deliberately dug through to the sea,
with Black-winged Stilts and more Wood
Sandpipers. There were various signs around the place
which suggested it might have been some sort of reserve but I
couldn't be sure as they were all in Greek!
My main target here was to be found (and heard) high
in the air above! It was my first ever Calandra Lark
which was engaged in periodic song flights way up above,
interspersed with returns to earth which allowed me to attempt
some photography. This was a particularly satisfying tick, as I
had first failed to find one over 35 years ago on La Crau plain
in Southern France!
Lark returning to earth
Distant Stone Curlew
Extricating myself from this site by SatNav was again
difficult but at last I reached a proper tarmacked road and
headed back towards the airport. Thereafter the drive north to
the Lake Kerkini area was remarkably easy, with dual
carriageways/motorways a good proportion of the route, without
any need to go into Thessaloniki itself. So in only about an
hour I reached the Lake Kerkini area and was immediately struck
by the amount of Nightingale song seemingly
coming from almost every roadside bush!
Rather than giving a chronological account of my various
wanderings around the Lake Kerkini area over the next four days
it seems more useful to give a site by site account.
Lake Kerkini sites
1. Boat trips by Nikos
Nikos is the enterprising owner of the Limneo Hotel
where I stayed for my first three nights in the area and he also
has a small boat for birder trips on the lake. He
offered me two private (i.e. just him and me) late afternoon
trips, each lasting 2-3 hours, at a quite reasonable price. Late in the day is probably best
for photography here as, due to the low water levels, boats had
to approach from the west the area where most of the birds
These boat trips were the photographic highlight of my stay and left from the eastern shore
near the pumping station from where it took nearly 30mins to get
to the main areas for the pelicans and other water birds. There
was an area of shore where many pelicans rest and also the
crowded breeding island for Dalmatian Pelicans but it wasn't
possible to approach either of these areas very closely. There
were a few birds sitting on isolated rocks that were
better targets but we passed these by quite quickly so photos
had to be taken hastily.
As I quickly learnt, the main opportunities were presented by
birds in flight that sometimes came quite close to boat, and
once or twice very close, but this was fairly hit and miss and
luck played a big part.
Nikos told me that the prime season for Dalmatian photography
is the winter months when they have their fully red bills and
get very tame - coming right up to or even onto the boat! A
telephoto lens wouldn't be needed, but in April it is very
different and most birds were generally pretty wary, of both
boats and people. In January and February he told me he spends long hours
on the lake with photographic clients.
On the first trip, there was thin cloud making for bright
conditions but somewhat lacking in contrast and the colours
depended very much on the angle to the sun, as shown below. This
trip was mainly notable for the close approach to a couple of
Dalmatian Pelicans on some isolated rocks and a brief close fly
past of a squadron of White's. The flooded forest also had
plenty of herons (Night and Squacco) and Egrets but it was
difficult for the boat to get close enough for good photos
without scaring them all off!
Dalmatian Pelicans (click to enlarge)
||White Pelican (click to enlarge)
Pelicans (click to enlarge)
at the flooded forest
The second trip was favoured by direct sunlight. The
highlight was a massive but quite distant feeding frenzy in which over
a thousand Cormorants were involved over a substantial area,
beating their wings presumably to panic the fish. Various groups
of pelicans were also keen to get in on the action as well! By
the time we had arrived on the scene most of the activity was
diminishing and Nikos was reluctant to try to get any
|Dalmatian Pelican and
Cormorant feeding frenzy
Pelicans (click to enlarge)
Pelicans (click upper two to enlarge)
Cormorants - a difficult bird to get close to.
2. Western Shore
When I first arrived in the late afternoon at Lake Kerkini the
obvious thing to do was to drive along the road that winds up
the western side of the lake. Near the start, by the dam, where
the water is deepest, there were only a few birds visible on the
lake - mainly Great-crested Grebe. Further on
views of the lake were quite intermittent until Mills site 9 (Korifoudi
marshes) is reached. Here there are pools to the west of the
road and the lake edge on the eastern side is much shallower and
there were my first Dalmatian Pelicans fairly
close in. There were also good numbers of
Little Egrets, Grey Herons and the odd Squacco Heron
and Pygmy Cormorant.
I didn't notice any of the waders, shrikes or crakes mentioned
in the Mills book though.
Pelicans from the shore (click
3. Mandraki Harbour
This site is on
the northern shore of the lake and is reached down a small road
from the village. It is clearly a recognised and popular spot
from where to
view the lake and surrounding marshes, as there are seats
and explanatory signs. It was the best site I found
around the lake but I suspect conditions here are very dependent
on water levels. During my stay the water level rose slightly
and my last visit was the best with shallow water right
up to the shoreline.
I visited this site three times. The first was in the middle
of the day and a group of British birders were just leaving as I
arrived. With this disturbance and lower water levels everything
had moved off and there were very distant views of pelicans with
slightly closer Spoonbills, Egrets,
Squacco Herons, Black Stork,
Wood Sandpipers and Little Ringed
Plover. My second visit was in the early morning just
after dawn and predictably the place was much quieter but the
sun was all wrong for photography. I did however add
Great White Egret to the trip list.
My third and final visit was at the end of the day and was
much better for photography, with the sun behind me with most of the
birds to the east. Also by great good fortune there was
nobody else present. I found that although the birds moved away
when I arrived, by sitting still for an hour or more, they
started to come back and others flew past, reasonably close. In
addition to the water birds, this site had Cuckoo
and Golden Oriole (only heard) in the trees
behind the shore.
both to enlarge)
|Squacco Heron (click to enlarge)
||Squacco Heron (click to enlarge)
(click to enlarge)
Heron (click to enlarge)
4. Chryssohorafa, Pumping station and
Chryssohorafa is the village in
which the Limneo hotel is situated and had at least one
White Stork nest which I came across by accident early
one morning having missed the left turn to the pumping station!
I couldn't resist taking some photos as the light was brilliant.
The pumping station is slightly tricky to get to. You need to
turn right on a white gravel track (at GPS 41.180128, 23.213866)
that leads off the small road which goes west from the southern
edge of the village. Then follow this track round and up onto
the embankment but first of all you come to an irrigation
channel where it is possible to drive right along the edge for some distance to the north east. I found this fairly late in
my stay, but it held several Great Reed Warblers,
a Little Bittern and a Pygmy Cormorant.
Using the car as I hide I managed to get pics of the first two
of these species - as shown below.
The track runs all the way along the eastern embankment,
reaching the north east corner of the lake where the river
Strimon flows in. This was quite rough and potholed in places
but just about OK in an ordinary car. For photography it was
only notable for the Bee Eater pic below but
towards the northern end, it gave distant views of some of the
shallower parts of the lake where all the pelicans congregate.
There was also a distant Black Stork,
Spoonbills, Glossy Ibis, egrets etc. Further on,
the water levels were very low but there were some pools that
had the ever wary Pygmy Cormorants. When I
returned another day and drove the track from north to south in the
afternoon, I saw much same things with the addition of a passing
|White Stork - note the
second bird low on the nest (click to enlarge)
|Great Reed Warbler (click
Crested Lark (click to enlarge)
5. Vironia tracks and
Strimon river banks
The Vironia tracks are
covered by both Mills and Gosney and were of strong interest to
me as both stated that Grey headed Woodpecker could be found in
this area. So shortly after dawn on my first morning found me
heading along what I presumed was track 2a from the Mills book,
which started at GPS 41.259287, 23.251094. However the more
obvious track that I followed headed north west whereas the
track in the Mills book goes more or less west. In the early
morning, the number of Nightingales singing (mostly invisibly)
along this track was amazing. There were also several Cetti's
Warblers and the the exotic song of Hoopoes was quite frequent as well.
But the number of visible birds was remarkably few! After a
while I reached a point where the track met the railway line
(there was a small bridge under the line). At that point (GPS
41.263037,23.23559) I heard what I thought was a Grey
headed Woodpecker call and I then managed to not only
see it but get moderate photos of it.
This completed my set of all the European woodpeckers (which
has needed trips to Austria in
2004, Norway in 2005,
Sweden in 2008 and Turkey
last year)! With the suggestion of
passage Collared Flycatchers in this area (from the Mills book),
I also tried track 2b (start at GPS 41.256492, 23.250356) the
following morning. There was no sign of any passage migrants,
let alone Collared Flycatcher (a general theme of this trip) but
I did come across another Grey-headed Woodpecker
probably at about GPS 41.258085, 23.223733.
Grey headed Woodpeckers (click left to enlarge)
Just to the south of this area, there is a narrow, single
track bridge over
the river Strimon and both banks to the east of the bridge were
good for Bee Eaters (all day) and Hoopoe (at the end of the
day). There was also a little marsh on the northern side that
had a couple of Spoonbills once. I had several sessions
here, using the car as a hide, trying for photos of all these
species, especially the Bee Eaters in flight
which were challenging and frustrating in about equal measure.
Also in this area there were Golden Orioles
singing from the wood to the south of the river (& east of the
bridge) mainly in the evening but I didn't go looking for them.
A word of warning though about this area - flocks of animals,
with shepherds and dogs, roam freely all around it and can cause
some disturbance. One of my Bee Eater photo sessions was
curtailed by a herd of buffalo that moved through right
underneath the wires that the Bee Eaters were using!
Bee Eaters (click upper images to enlarge)
Wider Lake Kerkini sites
1. Strimon marshes
This site is covered in the Mills book and was reached along a
driveable track that departs from the main road at GPS
41.281667, 23.326552. The river runs along the left side of this
track and on the other side, after a few km, there is a small
track to the right, which I did not attempt to drive but walked.
This led very shortly to a nice area of marshes and pools but
without many birds. Best was a fly through Montagu's
Harrier and a Marsh Harrier, but there
were few other birds. The second marsh, about 500m further on
was by a pull in on the right, and had a Black Stork
circling when I arrived and a small flock of Spoonbills
in residence. There was also the odd Wood Sandpiper,
Little Ringed Plover and Black-headed
Wagtail about. However this didn't last very long as a huge flock
of goats appeared, with the usual dogs and shepherds, and
proceeded to storm right through the middle of the best part of
the marsh. This seemed to explain the lack of birds at this
promising site. There were also flocks of cows roaming around.
When I returned briefly on a following day, the same animals
were again evident and there were even fewer birds.
|Black Stork (click to
I don't know if this form of grazing has increased recently.
It is something I came across once or twice briefly in the
mountains in Turkey, but this seemed to be on a different scale
and intensity altogether.
2. Mount Vrontou and Lailias
In the quieter middle part of my last
full day, I fancied a change of scene so decided to try Mount
Vrontou that is covered
briefly in the Mills book and in more detail in the Gosney
booklet. It was a good hours drive away, and required navigation
through the sizeable town of Serres for which I was extremely
glad of the SatNav. Even so, there was a lot of traffic, narrow
roads and many double parked cars. At one point a lorry in
front of me came to a halt hooting madly because it couldn't get
through, so I had to divert off to one side and rely on the SatNav to get me there.
Thereafter it was a pleasant enough scenic but birdless drive up. I started
at the "ski centre" at the end of the road which consisted of a
few deserted buildings and a grassy slope. A brief wander around
produced very little with the only bird of any note being a
Tree Pipit, so I headed back down along the
loop road with the campsite shown in the Gosney booklet and saw
even less! Heading a bit further back down, I tried the
Katophyria ski hotel with similar results. Finally I stopped at
Gosney site 4 and walked along the track that went to a point
overlooking some cliffs for "the best birding on the
mountain" but all I found in a brief stay was a
Crag Martin and a couple of
Red-rumped Swallows. On my return there was distant
drumming of a presumed Black Woodpecker but it didn't show, so I
decided to head back down to the more birdy environs of Lake Kerkini.
Even in mid April,
given the warm to hot weather I enjoyed, there was a fair amount of
dragonfly activity at some of the sites, particularly at Strimon
Marshes and sections of the eastern embankment of Lake Kerkini.
However I didn't have any particularly suitable optics for
dragonfly photography, so settled for a few quick snaps using
the DO and x1.4 TC. Only the probable White tailed Skimmer
(at Strimon Marshes) couldn't be found in the UK. There were several hawkers flying
around as well but I never got any shots of them, and I wasn't sure
what they were. There was a Common Club-tail
sunning itself on the ground at Strimon Marshes which seemed
unusual - but maybe they behave differently in southern Europe!
|Scarlet Darter at
||Probable White tailed
Skimmer at Strimon Marshes (despite the lack of a white
|Scarce Blue tailed
Damselfly at Strimon Marshes
||Scarce Chaser along
eastern embankment of Lake Kerkini
And now a couple of sunsets to
finish off this trip report:
|Sunset over Lake Kerkini after my
first boat trip
Sunset over Lake Kerkini after my second boat trip
||This small hotel/guest
house was well situated on the eastern side of Lake
Kerkini, within easy reach of all the best sites. It was
run by the enterprising Nikos Gallios, helped by his
parents, and is mainly aimed at birders and understands
My room was fine
and had all the necessary facilities including a small
table and chair. It also had a balcony overlooking the
nearby square that was notable for views of Red-rumped
Swallow nesting in a nearby building. The breakfast was
served by his mother and was fine. There are several
simple restaurants to chose from in the nearby square but
the two I tried were not very welcoming and the food
ranged from very
poor to just about acceptable depending on my choice. Both
were however remarkably economical - dinner with a beer
was 10-11 euro at both places.
Nikos speaks excellent English but nobody in the
restaurants did although there were English menus that
gave some idea of what to expect.
above, Nikos also runs birder specific boat trips (either
for groups or for individuals) on the lake which were very
good for photography.
I was originally planning to
spend all five nights there, but Nikos had a problem over
a tour group (which are a large part of his business) who
wanted to arrive a day earlier than expected.
Consequently, early in the morning of my fourth day, he asked me if I would mind moving to another
place, which he would organise and cover any additional
cost, to which I agreed.
Erodios Hotel, Lithotopos
||This large hotel was a complete contrast
to the Limneo and was where I stayed for my last two
nights. It was very well situated on a hillside above the
lake, near the dam at the southern end of the lake. The receptionist was friendly and
welcoming and spoke good English but nobody else did!
The rooms were up a steep hill from the main part of the
hotel - the easiest thing was to drive! My room was large,
well equipped for a modern tourist hotel with
a balcony giving a superb view of the lake. Breakfast
outside on the spacious terrace overlooking the lake on my
first morning there was probably the highlight of my stay!
The whole hotel was oddly deserted with no more than a handful of
The restaurant appeared to specialise in
buffalo meat, which I was happy to try (a bit tough). It was a
marked improvement on the places
in Chryssohorafa but that is not saying very much at all!
If I had had
to pay for the room, it was much more expensive than the Limneo (about
£100 per night instead of 50 euro at the Limneo) so I
think I got a good deal from Nikos - well worth the minor
inconvenience of moving.
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