Northern Greece Birding & Natural History Exploration

April 2011

Northern Greece Mass Audubon tour group © Elissa Landre, Mass Audubon
© Elissa Landre, Mass Audubon
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Leader: Elissa Landre, Broadmoor Sanctuary Director and Naturalist

Macedonia and Thrace in northern Greece protect wintering, breeding and stopover sites for many birds no longer found elsewhere in Europe. The landscape features rivers draining from the northern mountains through spectacular rocky gorges to wide Deltas on the Aegean Sea. 

Six wetlands are designated as Important Bird Areas, and the first lived up to that designation on our first day at Lake Kerkini where we saw eight vulnerable, threatened or endangered species: the petite Pygmy Cormorants, White and Dalmatian Pelicans, Purple Heron, Black Stork, Spoonbill, Glossy Ibis, and Whiskered Tern. The area, designated a national park, includes the northern mountains with 6,000 foot snow-capped peaks. During our day with the park director, Theo, we learned about plans to expand nest platforms for pelicans and visited the small nature center with excellent exhibits about the natural history of the area. 

Other highlights included:

  •  Timiou Prodromos ( monastery of John the Baptist), now a convent, in near Feres including a walk to the spring with Dipper, Grey Wagtail and the ever abundant Chaffinch along the way.  We heard the chanted music of Easter week mass as we birded through the grounds and were treated to twice baked bread with sesame seeds and home-made candies flavored with herbs by the nuns.
  • At Stavropoulos ss the sun set we could see the bright white of the marble mountain quarry as we drove through a deserted plateau before dropping down to Chryssopouli, the town of gold, in the Nestos delta. The lights in the delta showed how much wetland has been drained for development and irrigation. 
  • In Nestos Gorge where the train tracks for the Orient Express wind through tunnels carved in the rock and wild iris, primrose, thyme, wild pistachio and holly oak adorn the walls. 
  • the top of Nestos Gorge where wildflowers carpeting the hillsides included anemone, wild orchids and grape hyacinth.  The cool weather kept raptors grounded, but Subalpine warbler made an appearance. 
  • A stop in Kalamokastro gave everyone close ups of Lesser Kestrels in the small colony.
  • The guesthouse at Dadia Forest Reserve, a short distance from the Turkish border, was our base to explore far eastern Thrace.  The first visit to a hide for viewing raptors featured great views of Black Vulture with wing tag number 51, hatched in 2009 from the “best nest in the forest” according to a young French volunteer who tracks tagged raptors. 
  • A second visit, after a fresh goat carcass had been put out on the feeding hill well away from the hide, featured 18 raptors including the huge Griffon and Black vultures, smaller White-tailed eagles and smaller still Egyptian vultures.
  • As we walked the road a migration of nearly a dozen Short-toed Eagles flew over giving us great views of these snake-eating birds.  Our late afternoon visit to Panagia Kosmosoteira also called the church Savior of the World in Feres, built in 1152, was greatly enhanced by the expertise of one of our party who had studied it. 
  • A tree full of nesting Grey Herons on the bank of Lake Volvi, Black and Whiskered Terns, Little Bittern, and a Cuckoo illustrating its resemblance to a Sparrowhawk by perching nearly horizontally in the open, provided a grand finale and recapitulation of many birds seen on our trip.

Classical Extension highlights:

  • At Epidaurus, dedicated to Asclepius, god of healing, a Blackbird enjoyed the resonance of the famous theatre, which magnified his virtuoso thrush performance.
  • Mycenae, with spectacular overlooks of the plain of Argos, formerly a bay, was our next stop. The Lion’s Gate was an awesome entrance, the oldest monumental sculpture in Europe. Wildflowers, wild peach and pistachio trees, and a Great tit nesting in the wall of the Treasury of Atreus were natural features. The red-eyed Sardinian warbler also put in an appearance.
  • Thunderstorms punctuated our three hour drive to Olympia through Tripoli near Kalamata on a newly opened highway. During much of our trip, there was evidence of a huge forest fire, possibly of suspicious origin. A walk en-route at Kaiafas Lake found a new bird:  Spotted Flycatcher. There were pomegranate and orange trees and sampled delicious small yellow fruit, loquats, indigenous to eastern China, called Mespel in Greek.
  • The home of the Olympic games (776 – 576 BC) was a flat but beautiful site. Our guide tried to put the games in perspective by telling us there were 50,000 spectators during August, when temperatures swelter and the two rivers flanking the site produce high humidity.  When she talked about drinking water and bathroom facilities, we got the picture. 
  • Sunday, May 1 is a national holiday like our Labor Day so the site at Delphi was close. We drove into the mountains to a former sheep meadow (now resort condo and home development) and the picturesque village of Eptalofos on the north side of Mount Parnassos.  There were plenty of Greek tourists, but no buses except ours. The stream rushing through town and plane trees spouting water from embedded ceramic heads were the focus of a walk. We found Grey Wagtail nesting, Wren (our Winter Wren), and Coal Tit.  Back at the town center, Angeliki had arranged a special lunch outdoors featuring kokoretsis, rooster, fried cheese and other delicacies.  We celebrated the holiday right along with the locals. A post lunch hike in the Grecian firs on the E-4 trail brought us to grassy mountain meadows where we did our best to create wildflower wreaths in celebration of “catching the May.” Thanos was tolerant of our decorations for his bus. Some got dropped off at the Terra Cotta showroom and walked back via sheep and goat trails through shrub land, finding beautiful orchids and Stonechats along the way.
  • At  Delphi on a beautiful day and were guided through the site, which still seems magical. Rock Nuthatch, Blue Rock Thrush, Black-eared Wheatear, and Kestrel were easily seen. The new museum is well done and features the famous bronze Charioteer, Antinoos, and the Naxian Sphinx.

An outstanding trip and a wonderful group of travelers!