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After 3 successive birding holidays on continents other than Europe, we decided a Mediterranean destination was well overdue. Lesbos was an excellent choice. We had covered many of the Med birds on offer before, but this island presents a mix of speciality breeders (such as Krüpers Nuthatch, Cinereous Bunting, and Western Rock Nuthatch), and superb migration potential, with the particular possibility of good numbers of fly through Red-footed Falcons. This combined with the ease of getting there (a few companies do package tours for a good price) proved an excellent combination.
The island is apparently the third largest in Greece, which gives plenty of scope for exploration. Even so, most of the hotels used are in the centre of the island, which means that even distant destinations are no more than just over an hour to reach. Almost all of the terrain is hilly, with few flat plains anywhere, and most of this, apart from the higher peaks and some of the more barren slopes to the west, is covered by either low scrub or trees. Woodland is by no means dense, or the trees high, which makes woodland birding somewhat easier than I have encountered elsewhere.
In addition to the accessibility of Lesbos by means of the package holidays, which has probably helped in the islands popularity over other islands of similar placing and potential (such as Samos to the south), is the advent of Richard Brookes' excellent guide to the birding sites on the island. He has spent over a decade visiting Lesbos, and the detail in the book reflects this, meaning it as a must have essential on the trip. The only word of warning I would have is that some of the distances he uses are a little optimistic, so don't aways believe exact milages quoted. Alongside this guide, the other essential is a good map of the island, which can be bought beforehand, or seem to be generally available in most tat shops ("Road Editions" #212, 65 Ippokratous str. GR 106 70. Athens). I emphasise the word good - anything less than an Ordnance Survey quality map would lead to problems considering the size and placing of some of the tracks (not to mention the tiny streets in the towns).
For our base we chose Petra in the north of the island. The reason for this was purely down to cost, since Kosmar do a very reasonable range of appartments in this area - we paid £210 each for the week. The ideal base is Skala Kalloni , which is right on the birding doorstep (in fact, the Kalloni II hotel is situated directly opposite Kalloni Pool, which is one of the best small sites in the area, if not the whole of Lesbos!). Some of the companies that cover Skala Kallomi also fly out in April, whereas Kosmar have the first week in May as the earliest date (currently), alhough with a one week trip, which we found more than ample to see most if not all of the specialities, this week is probably the best. Occasional wintering birds are still lingering, migration is still constant, and some of the breeding birds, such as Rufous Bush Robin, only appeared in this time.
There is often quite a difference in the weather at this time of year, judging by the experience of others who had been present the week before. The weather had been cool and unsettled, whereas we experienced almost constant full sunshine, which also meant that the amount of water in the pools and rivers depleted through the week. Yet despite sunblock being a requirement, mornings could be quite cold, and on the last morning, there were spots of rain - so rain gear may even be needed at times!
Car hire is an absolute essential, not only for reaching the birding sites (most are out of the way, and there was little evidence of a regular bus service), but also as a mobile hide. The latter benefit is not to be underestimated, since I have not noticed as big a difference between how close birds can be approached on foot and in car on trips before. Another tip is to pick the car up at the airport. The island is very easy to navigate on a first day including through Mytilini, the capital, which must be crossed from the airport, and we squeezed in many extra hours birding by doing this. The act of driving on Lesbos is an experience, since the quality of the roads varies tremendously. Many of the main roads are tarmacked, but even then you can bizarrely change from tarmac to dirt track at a seemingly indiscriminate part of the route. The Napi valley road has tarmac for most of its length, but incredulously the middle 3 kms or so are dirt track. We managed reasonably comfortably in a Renault Clio, but a 4x4 would have managed even better occasionally. On the other hand, some of the streets through even the more major villages have squeeze-tight alleys as the major thoroughfairs, so small is often good!
Palios Headland (Day 1)
After landing at 2 o'clock, which was more or less on schedule, the switch to Mediterranean time and working meant that we had collected luggage, navigated customs, and collected the car by 3:30. Mytlini, the small capital of the island, was traversed without too much ado, and we travelled about 30kms North, turning off the main road on to the Palios headland, which is just to the East of Mandamados. The first km or so of this road was in quite good condition, and led us into a false sense of security, since it quickly deteriorated into the type of rough track, decorated with scattered potholes, that would be expected for this corner of the globe. Most of the surrounding habitat was low, rough scrub. What came as a surprise were the number of small pools lining the edge of the track throughout. Most of these held very little if any birdlife, but there is every possibility that they will form a focus for drinking visits during the day. One larger pool, between Palios and the track leading off to Mandamados did support a couple of very wary Ruddy Shelduck, and approachable Wood Sandpipers. Although most of the track was bounded by low scrub, and occasional small copses, the end of the headland, past Palios, contained more low bushes, and thick intertwined scrub. There was a sign here for no photography, and in the light of the recent events with the plane spotters in Greece, we beat a hasty retreat. Nevertheless, this was a good spot for warblers, with a few singing, though elusive, Subalpine Warblers, and the first of what were to be many Orphean Warblers. We had expected to see one or two shrikes here, but to see all four, with the first (Lesser Grey) being the least common, was particularly satisfying. Only one Lesser Grey Shrike was seen, but was followed by single Red-backed, 2-3 Woodchat, and a pair of Masked Shrikes. The whole headland is very good for the basic Mediterranean birds, and was a good introduction to Lesvian birding.
We had entered the headland by taking a track to the South of Madamados (near Pedi), and continued our journey by following a right fork West of Palios, directly towards Madamados itself. This track was even rougher than the earlier one, but was bounded by quite a different habitat, with many orchards and the odd olive grove, interspersed with open areas (for grazing?), and seemed to have even more potential for birds. Singing Cetti's Warblers and Nightingales were along the course of the stream, which still retained a small amount of flowing water. Towards the end of the track, and near the main road, 3 Short-toed Eagles were seen hovering in the distance.
East Bank of East River (Day 2)
After a good nights sleep, we overestimated the time of dawn (just after 6am), and got past Kalloni to the East River at 7am. The initial intention was to skirt straight down the river, and then aim for the salt pans. Yet it took an hour to do so, due to the excellent birding that can be had from the tracks along the banks. The eastern one was the best one to use at this time of day, keeping the strong sunlight behind us. The river still holds quite a lot of water, containing more as it winds towards the sea. There were plenty of warblers singing in the bushes, and it became clear that most of them were Olivaceous, which were particularly active. Some Reed Warblers were also here, and a single Sedge Warbler, with one pair of noisy Great Reed Warblers half way down the track. Wood Sandpiper seemed to be the predominant wader by far, with plenty of groups of birds spread out along the river bed. Together with the numerous Black-headed Buntings and Crested Larks, there was also the constant sound of singing Nightingales, with occasional birds popping out into the open briefly, with one hopping along the track itself. Most of the birds seemed to be concentrated on the banks of the river, as opposed to the orchards and farmland to the east, although not as much time was spent scanning this area due to the strong face-on sunlight. That area was to be covered later in the morning anyway.
Kalloni Salt Pans
After this steady start to the day, we came across the track opposite the ford on the East River, which snakes towards the salt pans. This track bisects a couple of km of open grazing land and crop fields, which was interesting enough in itself for a few stops. Initial birds were more Olivaceous Warblers and a single Cetti's Warbler, which came into the open quite regularly, with a single male Red-footed Falcon on telegraph wires close by. We were a little surprised by the paucity of harriers in what looked like appropriate habitat, but that might have been related to the time of year and luck. A group of 4 Black Storks together did fly in, and the first of our Little Owls was perched on telegraph wires. Towards the end of the track (near to the salt pans), was the first of the open small pools, and this was quite good for various races of Yellow Wagtail (thunbergi and flava). Bee-eaters seemed as if they were everywhere.
Past this pool, and over a cattle grid, there is a concrete headland where we left the car. The bridge can probably be crossed in the car if careful, but did not look too welcoming. We crossed the bridge on foot, through the rusty metal fence, and probably saw a lot more than could be seen using the car anyway. We spent the rest of the morning here, and overall it was well worth the time and effort put in. Numerous Crested & Short-toed Larks were around, with occasional raptors overhead - initially Short-toed Eagle and Marsh Harrier, with eventually female Montagu's Harrier low over the fields, and in the distance a Long-legged Buzzard was mobbed by Yellow-legged Gulls, which flew closer before circling over and away. On the sand dunes was a small plover that was attracting some interest from other birders, being variously diagnosed as Caspian Plover by the British birders, Lesser Sand Plover by the Scandinavians, and Kentish Plover by others. It was different, in that it had the overall jizz of a Kentish Plover, but lacks a white collar round the back of the neck (if anything, there was a slightly lighter brown band). The bill looked a little finer and longer than I remember from Lesser Sand Plovers, but this could not rule out the latter totally. The legs seemed dark, the breast band at the sides quite obvious, with the white on the forehead extending to the front of the eye, but not obviously behind. It also seemed to be sitting a nest, even though there was no sign of a male. While watching this for the first time, a Pratincole flew over and circled for around 5 minutes. It seemed to have the trademark dark trailing wing edge and underwing of Black-winged, but the views were not perfect enough to clinch this. We reached the eastern stream border of these sheep fields where there is a sand spit, which hosted 4 Grey Plover, a couple of Dunlin, and 2 Sandwich Terns among the Common Terns.
Walking back past where the plover was nesting, we cut across the sheep fields. This area also contained some boggy patches and occasional shallow pools, which were very good for Red-throated Pipits and various Yellow Wagtail subspecies, including the first Black-headed feldegg. On the pools were more Wood Sandpiper, a couple of Ruff, and a single Marsh Sandpiper.
The main interest on the Plain, which is just north of Achladeri village, is the pine coniferous woodland, where some time was spent looking for one of the main target species - Krüper's Nuthatch. The appropriate site is found quite easily, not only by the obvious white disused buildings that can be seen from the road, but also the throng of birders cars (and minibuses if you are really unlucky with the timing!). The track through the pine wood leads directly from the parking spot, and within about 100m, the soft nasal calls of the Nuthatches can be heard reasonably frequently. They actually seem to have two calls, one which sounds similar to the North American White- & Red-breasted Nuthatches, and an alarm call resembling a very soft version of the European Nuthatch. They are also very mobile, but can eventually be picked out with good views (we saw at least 4 different birds). They are a delicate little Nuthatch, with the usual white breast and light grey back, but with additional rufous on the front of the breast as a band and on the forehead. Although not densely populated with varied species, and apart from Chaffinches, Greenfinches and Goldfinches, the woods are worth looking for others - we found singing Serin and Cretzchmar's Bunting, along with a pair of Woodchat Shrikes and single Masked Shrike.
After the treat of the Krüper's Nuthatches, we turned off shortly after Achladeri, and took the coastal track to the salt pans at Skala Polichnitos. The first couple of kms were back to the bumps, potholes and boulders to navigate round and through, but it is very pleasant, running alongside the coastline (the sea is only metres away). It passes through some excellent habitat, with open fields and olive groves, but does not turn up either a great variety or number of birds. We also passed one or two small pools which were quiet. The salt pans themselves were certainly worth the slow trip. They are a reasonable size, yet still smaller, and more accessible, than at Kalloni, with a rough track along the Western border, which is eroded half way along. This meant walking, which was not a bad thing, leading to more birds being picked up, and along with the reasonably common Black-winged Stilts, Avocets, Ruff, and Common Terns, there were also smaller numbers of Little Stints and Curlew Sandpipers, and a single Collared Pratincole. The latter was just sufficient distance from us for the main features when standing to be discerned. Although the red on the bill seemed to be fairly obvious, it wasn't until it flew a short distance that the rusty underwings could be seen (the white trailing edge to the wings was difficult).
Kalloni Pool (Day 3)
The first view of the pool is of masses of birders out on their pre-breakfast sorties. There is very good reason for this, since this pool not only produces a good variety of birds, but is also right on the doorstep of some of the Skala Kalloni apartments - Kalloni II is directly opposite on the other side of a small road. The pool is adjacent to the beach on the western edge of Skala Kalloni, and the view from the main road is preferable in the early morning, due to the positioning of the sun. The pool consists of some open water in amongst beds of low reeds and grasses, which means that most of the birds are quite visible. First views of the pool reveals most of the obvious species, such as Black-winged Stilt, Garganey, Glossy Ibis, and the superb White-winged Black Terns mixing with Whiskered Terns hawking over the water and vegetation. More patience unearthed to Little Bitterns, most of which seemed to be males, and more often than not in flight, although some can be seen in the open on occasion. More of a surprise was a European Bittern, which occasionally poked its head above the reeds in the corner adjacent to the Kalloni II hotel. Yet more patience found 2 female Little Crakes together in the same corner of the pool. These showed on and off for 20 minutes to half an hour, usually hugging the edges of the vegetation, but sometimes in the open. During the early morning stay, 2 Harriers flew over from the West, 1 Marsh and 1 Montagu's Harrier.
Upper East River
The area of interest for birds does not really cover the river. The track begins at some obvious grain silos near to the river itself, and then turns a sharp right. After about 400m, the track opened out on to the eastern side of the flat valley, which is generally fairly open, and the gentle slopes on the right hand side of the track are sparsely vegetated with scrub and bushes, with plenty of rocks interspersed. The small farm with the sheep and pig pens is fairly obvious, and we stopped just after this, at what is probably the most productive area. The well known Western Rock Nuthatch nest is about 100m after the farm, right next to the road on a large rock. The nuthatches here were seen quite well away from the nest, but tended to be very flighty. A further two nests were found further up the track. The area where the track forks (about 50m up from the first nuthatch nest) is excellent, and we spent quite a lot of time here. The Rufous Bush Robin was first singing in a lone bush at the fork, but later favoured the bush at the first sharp right. The bird overall is fairly pale, and tended to keep its tail straight while singing, only cocking later when it flew and landed elsewhere. The fork in the track also had extremely close Black-eared Wheatears (a pair) and Red-backed & Lesser Grey Shrikes. Further up the track, the landscape was more bushy, and this is quite good for the odd singing Cretzchmar's & Cirl Bunting. This Upper East River area is a very pleasant place to look for birds, particularly from the aspect of having seen only two other birders cars, and plenty of close, quality birds.
The plan following feta cheese sandwiches for lunch (well recommended) was to leave the Upper East River and visit Kalloni Small Pool. However, the Rufous Bush Robin returning again spurred us on to try for good photos of Western Rock Nuthatch at the second nest found. This pair of birds proved elusive, but parking the car and using it as a hide next to the first nest was particularly satisfying, with the birds returning regularly to the nest and the rocks around.
Kalloni Small Pool & Potamia River valley
After stopping off in Kalloni for another half a dozen bottles off water, we passed by Skala Kalloni again to find the track to the Kalloni Small Pool. This wasn't the easiest place to find, but we did get there eventually. It is a well vegetated pool, not too large, although the water itself did not hold a great deal apart from Moorhen and, in the water, Stripe-necked Terrapin. In one of the marginal trees, roosting and almost hidden, was an adult Night Heron. In the field opposite, a small group of Yellow Wagtails again included thunbergi, as well as flava. We circumnavigated the whole pool, which doesn't take too long, and then followed one of the tracks up the valley. There were birds here, but nothing of note.
From the pool, we went up the Potamia River Valley for the rest of the afternoon, and this turned out to be a little novel. The amount of time we spent in the valley did not reflect the small variety of species that we saw, particularly early on. The scenery here is wonderful, with the track surrounded on both sides by steep mountains with fairly high peaks. The amount of birds that we actually saw amongst the olive groves and oak woodland was quite low, although many of the common species were represented, such as Red-backed, Woodchat, & Masked Shrike, singing Nightingales, as well as the relatively numerous Subalpine Warbler. According to Brookes' guide, this track is supposed to end after a few kms, but it actually keeps on going until it meets the mountain village of Anemotia, which can presumably be crossed to get to Petra at the other side of the mountains. However, we decided to return by the same route, and within a few hundred metres of the village, saw Sparrowhawk and Peregrine. The best birding was when we were about half way back down, which was at around 6pm, and all of a sudden the raptors seemed to be more visible. Most prominent were Short-toed Eagles, with at least 5-6, with 2-3 Long-legged Buzzards, Steppe Buzzards, and an Eleonora's Falcon playing around on one of the high crags for some time.
Devil's Bridge (Day 4)
First port of call was the small chapel about 1km to the west of Parakila (at Devil's Bridge). The main reason for this was that it was reputed to be the closest site to Kalloni for Cinereous Bunting. Early in the morning, it is a nice site to visit, with a short climb to the chapel, which is fairly open with very few trees around. It is situated in the corner of a not too steep ravine, bounded on one side by a small rock face, and on the other by slopes containing open grass topped by scree and boulders. No Cinereous Buntings were seen this morning, but birding was very good otherwise. At least 3 pairs of Cretzchmar's Bunting and a pair of Cirl Buntings were present, and on the slopes probably up to 3 different Black-eared Wheatears, 2 dark and 1 light throated. One of these had a group of 4 birders keenly trying to identify it as Finsch's. Initial views, where the bird was above us on a favoured rock perch, seemed to show black concolourous on the throat and wings, but prolonged watching found the white collar. The area was also good for Western Rock Nuthatch, with at least 2 pairs, possibly 3. One had a nest in the rock face above the corner of the road. Around the face, in small cracks in the rock, were plenty of small white feathers, and the bird seems to have collected these and shoved them in for some reason. It looked as if some were going to be put into the nest, but then it returned them to the rock face. Art deco á la Rock Nuthatch! Earlier, a Short-toed Eagle was hunting across the escarpment, and gave superb views in the early morning light.
The road from Devil's Bridge to Agra became more barren and hilly, and we kept the windows open, listening for the song of Cinereous Bunting. All song heard was from Cretzchmar's, and with a further 2 Western Rock Nuthatches at separate locations. The scenery approaching Agra is dramatic, especially looking across the valley at the village itself. We stopped on the other side of Agra, at a concrete building bounded by 2 cylindrical silos either side of the road, since this is another location where Cinereous Bunting had been reported. A good climb up the rocky hillside found yet more breeding Cretzchmar's, and Kestrel & Short-toed Eagle overhead. Although Cinereous Bunting was possibly singing further up the slopes, we couldn't locate it.
At 3km West of Agra, we arrived at a site reported for Rock Sparrows. This was found to be very productive for a lot besides aforementioned spuggies. The stop next to the corrugated roofed building that was just below the road produced a hunting male Montagu's Harrier within minutes in the valley below. Between the songs of Cretzchmar's Bunting was something a little different - not quite as nasal with a flutey end - a male Cinereous Bunting was found on the telegraph wires not far below. It was singing here for 5-10 minutes, then dropped further down, before returning again soon after, and proved to be quite approachable. During our time there, we also had superb hunting Short-toed Eagle (2) and Long-legged Buzzard. All 3 eventually found thermals together before disappearing over one of the ridges. Before leaving, a pair of Golden Orioles flew over the road into an isolated orchard.
Lunchtime was spent to the South of Mesotopos, and just outside of Tavari. The road between the two has a track on the right supporting a small ford, which was host to a small stream at this time of year. However, it was enjoyable to have Cretzchmar's Bunting, Linnet, Red-backed Shrike, and Crested Lark either drinking or bathing while munching on feta cheese sandwich. An added bonus when we arrived was a singing Rufous Bush Robin. A little further on were two more fords, both dry. The second ford was reputed to be good for Little Owl, and the individual there as soon as we arrived would agree! Apart from that bird, a Kestrel being mobbed by 2 Hooded Crows was all that was on offer. It is also a very barren location, with the constant tinkle of sheep bells in the rock covered hills around. The rest of the track up to the cliffs was fairly uneventful, apart from the fact that we found both Red-backed & Lesser Grey Shrikes at the turn off to the cliff track, juct as reported in Brookes' guide in 1998! The cliffs themselves again turned up the odd bird, with 2-3 Lesser Kestrels playing along some of the faces on the headland, and the rather bizarre sight of a Purple Heron perched on one of the faces to the right of where we were looking. During our time there, which was mid afternoon, and with only a light onshore wind, several groups of Cory's Shearwater passed from East to West, in flocks of between 10-30. The wind was so low that it was quite unusual to see them flapping most of the time.
After leaving the rocky and hilly terrain, we approached Eressos and its plain, which was much flatter. The Vergias river crosses under the road here, and all the upper part was fairly quiet. The last half km or so, before Skala Eresou was reached, was excellent. Just after joining the right hand bank where the road bridge crosses the river, were male Little Bittern, Squacco Heron, and Night Heron all in one spot, along with a lone Little Egret. The river bed in the main is rocky and fairly dry, leaving some stretches of standing water. We drove all the way up to the concrete ford, which is supposed to be quite good for wagtails, but it is likely that they are disturbed too frequently by local traffic at this time of the day. However, a few hundred metres short of this, on an exposed rocky area in the river bed, a single Yellow Wagtail was feeding with a male Citrine Wagtail. This is apparently a scarce passage migrant on the island, as well as being one of only two wagtails on this part of the river. It was a reasonably exciting find.
Skala Eresou to Kalloni
The last couple of hours of the day were spent on a couple of mopping up operations - namely Rock Sparrow, recheck the "Finsch's" Wheatear, and Scops Owl at Skala Kalloni. For the former, we went the 4½km north of Eressos to what was supposedly a good site on steep cliff faces next to the road. Supposed was the word for it - there was no sight or sound here, although there was very close Cinereous Bunting, and Isabelline Wheatear on the slopes up from the roadside cliffs. As recompense, half way between Agra and Parakila, a quick stop to look at a passerine on the roadside revealed it to be a Rock Sparrow. Job #1 done! Back at Devil's Bridge, the very same wheatear as earlier was in the very same place (same rock, in fact!), and this was definitely Black-eared Wheatear. Just to check that there were no more hiding above the escarpment, we climbed to the top and found one other male - another Black-eared but with a much more buff crown. The likelihood is that the bird some were claiming as Finsch's was the former bird viewed at the wrong angle from below. Back at Skala Kalloni, we eventually found the school after skirting around the embers of bonfires in the middle of the road, and there were plenty of eucalyptus around the grounds, which is where the Scops Owl was reported to be roosting. We couldn't find the bird, but after 10 minutes or so chanced upon a pair of Middle Spotted Woodpeckers in an adjoining orchard. These had been apparently difficult to catch up with this year.
Ipsilou monastery (Day 5)
After the ¾ hour drive from Petra to the Andissa / Sigri / Eressos junction, we exited from the car to look over the fairly barren terrain on a cool and calm morning. At least 4 displaying Isabelline Wheatears were evident straight away. They were very mobile and obvious, especially when in display flight. Also here were Red-backed & Woodchat Shrikes, numerous Spanish Sparrows from what was likely to be a colony in the poplars across the valley, and a couple of Ravens overhead.
After leaving the junction, there were at least another 3 Isabelline Wheatears on the way to Ipsilou monastery, where we parked at the base. Any birder contemplating driving up the track to the monastery needs certifying, because there are masses of migrants whichever side is climbed. We started on the right hand track, which skirts the eastern side of the hill, and it was still quite cold and windy at this time. The slopes here are quite rocky, with one or two small cliffs and scattered bushes, and was a haven for migrants - plenty of warblers (Blackcap, Whitethroat, Lesser Whitethroat), and the first Stonechats of the trip. On this side we saw at least 2 singing Cinereous Buntings and the first signs of Rock Sparrow on the cliff face. The latter were much closer to hand at the monastery itself, where a pair were breeding in the walls next to the entrance. 2 separate Western Rock Nuthatches were here as well, along with the by now ubiquitous Cretzchmar's Bunting. As we neared the top of the hill, the presence of a military building and warning signs meant cameras away just in case (they reappeared when we reached the monastery buildings). While watching distance Rock Sparrow and Blue Rock Thrush (2 males of the latter) from the top, a Lanner flew past just over head height, then giving excellent views from above and below.
For the descent we chose a narrow and rough cobbled path bounded by a dry stone wall, which was on the southern (sunny) slope, with many scattered trees and bushes. This eventually met the newer looking track presumably designed for military use (it was roped off at the base). The bushes on this side were alive with migrants, particularly flycatchers (Spotted and Pied, with a single Red-breasted). 2 males and 1 female Golden Orioles flew over. In addition there were various Warblers. This side of the hill was again good for Cinereous Bunting in the form of 2 more singing males.
After finding ourselves going the wrong way through Sigri, which is virtually one street anyway, we doubled back and found the small track to Faneromeni. This is one of the best cultivated patches on this part of the plain, showing as a postage stamp of green among much rougher and more desolate terrain from the Andissa road. For such a small area, there is quite a variation in habitat, and although the irrigated and cultivated plots are supposed to be the best for birds, we found more of interest elsewhere.
First stop was to have lunch by the beach, which also happens to be next to a marsh with quite dense reeds, and over here were 3 Purple Herons, with a group of 5 Glossy Ibises flying in, as well as one or two Little Bitterns back and forth. Doubling back to the small pool and wet mud next to the beach, Little Stint and Little Ringed Plover were joined for a short while by a Collared Pratincole, which was very approachable in the car. The small river, which presumably feeds the marsh, is crossed by two fords. The lower ford, which seems to be the less well known, and nearer the sea, was visited for breeding Penduline Tit, which had an obvious nest ~100m downstream. The bird visited every 10 minutes or so, and once in the nest, stayed inside for another about another 5 minutes. While watching here, a female Little Bittern was fishing for tadpoles directly in front of us, and a feldegg Yellow Wagtail was even closer. Back at the upper ford, which was better known and usually populated by a few birders cars, is an excellent site for Little Bittern. We saw at least 3, and these come right out into the open, presumably hunting amongst the swarms of thousands of tadpoles in the water.
Sigri to Eressos to Ipsilou monastery
The main Sigri / Eressos road was predictably no more than a rough dirt track. Very tortuous, not too potholed, but also not too many birds. Main interest was provided by a very close Little Owl half way along. As we approached the plains of Eressos, which is rather impressive from the slopes above, Long-legged Buzzard flew past, Steppe Buzzard further below, and the rather glorious surrounds of the Eressos rubbish tip found a Black Kite being harried by a Hooded Crow. Getting from this track through Eressos was testing - it merged into very narrow and tortuous back streets, but we eventually found the square and much needed ATM for cash.
The last couple of hours of the day were spent back at Ipsilou looking for migrants. The wind was still howling from the North, so we decided to ascend the left hand track which seemed the more sheltered. Near to the top of this track was where most of the birds were hiding and hawking. These were predominantly female Pied Flycatchers, with the odd male, multitudes of Spotted Flycatchers, and various common warblers which included the first Wood Warblers of the trip. Overhead as we climbed the gradient was the Lanner for the second time in the day, flying quite high and away from the monastery. We spent some time looking over the open areas of broom in the sunlight, just below the entrance to the monastery, and it was noticeable that most of the flycatchers were here. As we descended the rough track once more, there were very few birds.
Petra / Molivos / Efthalou (Day 6)
By this time, we had seen most if not all of the islands specialities, and plenty else besides, meaning that today was the day was for some local birding in the Petra area. Almost all of the morning was spent between Petra and Molivos, starting with a look from the lay-by's to search for Rüppell's Warbler. Early morning was a good time for this, because the sun was still below the hills, leaving the landward side of the road visible without the glare. It was also quite cold at this time. We found Rüppell's Warbler on the seaward side of the road, but the whole area seems to be good for them. The first few hours were then spent up a dirt track just beyond the first lay-by, and next to a rather grand looking house. This track only went for about ½km up a hill, but was very good for typical Mediterranean warblers (Rüppell's, Subalpine, Orphean, and Sardinian), as well as Cirl Bunting. Not only that, but when we located a Cirl Bunting nesting spot, we stood for some time and were rewarded with close Cirl Bunting and Subalpine Warbler. A little further up the road, we took another track with an old rusty gate across (which we found was still in use!). This track was a lot different from the first, having more open woodland on the slopes above, and when rounding the corner, farm and pasture land. Overall it was quiet, apart from on the low ridge at the end, where we not only established a new record for Western Rock Nuthatches on one small rock (4), but when we stood again for some time, one of the birds appeared on a rock only 5m or so in front of us.
The Molivos / Efthalou track was again was of those testing ones to find from Molivos, with no sign, but our second guess was correct. The first couple of kms hold the last of the sparse tourist area, and the track then climbs up to more interesting landscape. The first couple of gullies with trees were by and large quiet, but 5½km out of Molivos, a sharp right hand bend with ample parking space on the corner was the base for wonderful views up to Mount Lepetimnos, with the closer wooded hills being framed by the highest point on the island behind. This was a good raptor watch point, and over the space of an hour, we had 3 Long-legged Buzzards, 2 Peregrine, 2 Eleonora's Falcons, and 2 Steppe Buzzards. There were masses of hirundines in the air constantly, which included Alpine Swifts in the distance initially. One of the most impressive sights here was what seemed like masses of Bee-eaters at first hawking above us, visibly catching flying insects, then circling above the tops of the fells, before flying out in large groups towards Turkey in the distance. The rest of the coastal track towards Skala Sikaminias was fairly uneventful, but made traversing the bank holiday masses in the small seaside village an event. There were the usual narrow streets, with cars coming from both directions, leaving total gridlock at one stage caused by no more than 10-12 cars. We eventually got through, and just after we had left the village and were climbing the steep hill, very close Long-legged Buzzards flew overhead. Stopping on the bend for a better look was mandatory!
Back on the main road towards Petra, and a couple more stops. The first was for singing Nightingales at the Lepetimnos junction, one of which sang in the open for a short time. While waiting for that, a Middle Spotted Woodpecker landed on the tree in front of the car - we saw it land, but not leave. This was also the site for our first and only Wren of the trip - not a common bird at this part of the island. A little further on, we stopped at the base of Mount Lepetimnos for some more good raptor watching - another 3 Long-legged Buzzards, 2 displaying Steppe Buzzards, and a pair of displaying Short-toed Eagles. The view from this side of the mountain in the afternoon, with the sun behind, is impressive, with low wooded slopes giving way to more craggy upper slopes. Most of the raptors were above the higher ridges, all of which can be seen on a stop on a tight bend between Molivos and Lepetimnos.
Olive Tree Warbler is always a difficult bird to pin down, not only due to range and scarcity, but also because of its secretive habits. We tried the reported site 3.6km to the east of Skalochori, where Richard Brookes had up to 7-8 singing males in 1998. The area was full of mixed woodland (mainly oak, interspersed with olives). We at first went through an unlocked iron gate, and then through a bare patch alongside, into the groves themselves. It was relatively quiet here, although we did disturb a Woodlark as we entered. No Olive Tree Warblers, but there were a few Subalpine Warblers, a Lesser Whitethroat, a couple of pairs of Cirl Buntings, both Red-backed & Masked Shrike, Short-toed Eagle and Steppe Buzzard overhead.
Kalloni area (Day 7)
The plan this morning was to go to Kalloni Pool first thing, which we did by 6 o'clock first light, scan around for any interesting arrivals, and get some information about other birds, such as Scops Owl, Olive Tree Warbler, and anything else of interest. As usually happens, things did not go exactly to plan, due to the good close birds that we chanced upon, and so we spent the whole of the morning in the Kalloni area, in particular in the salt pans vicinity. The weather had changed this morning, again starting cold, but the wind had switched around to the north-east, and was fairly strong, keeping temperatures down. We looked for any crakes that might be around in the corner of Kalloni pool - none today, but Water Rail legged it across the open mud. It was also noticeable that there were more Whiskered than White-winged Black Terns today, with 22 of the former, although 6 of the latter did fly in later.
We gained information about the exact trees for the Scops Owl missed earlier in the week, so we left for Kalloni school, where a group of birders were already watching the bird. It was about 3-5m up one of the poplars (not eucalyptus) in the open, behind the playground of the school. The bird was very approachable, and occasionally mustered the effort to half open one of its eyes to check us out.
From there we were heading for the salt pans area via the East River ford, where, as we crossed, Great Reed Warbler was close and out in the open. This had followed an equally confiding Olivaceous Warbler on the other side of the river. There was not much of interest between here and the car parking area next to the sheep fields, so we crossed to walk in the latter. A recently arrived Rufous Bush Robin, now singing from a favoured perch next to an abandoned wheelchair, was checked out first. From here, we walked towards the salt pans, which had dried up considerably since our first visit. There were masses of Red-throated Pipits and Yellow Wagtails here, most of the latter being flava, and the odd feldegg. Back towards the car was a small concentration of Short-toed Larks. When we got to the car, we heard of reported Black-winged Pratincole in the fields opposite the south-western end of the salt pans. When we arrived, there were quite a few birders watching a group of 4 pratincoles, all variously claiming dark wings, dark backs, etc. Unfortunately, they were a little distant, and only flew sporadically. There was also the added difficulty of actually seeing diagnostic features, so we spent an hour or so watching these, mainly on the ground, before they briefly flew past us, proving all to be Collared Pratincoles. Also in this area, on the telegraph wires directly in front of us, were initially 2 males and 1 female Red-footed Falcon (1 male departed) which periodically hunted the grass below for insects.
Afternoon was supposed to be similar to the morning, spending a short time in Napi Valley looking for Olive Tree Warbler, and then moving on elsewhere. Again, due to the excellent birding, this went out of the window, and we spent until early evening there. Directions to the site were to drive 11.8kms north of the garage on the main coast road, and this would take us through Napi village itself and into the valley. These were spot on - leaving the car and heading into the sparsely wooded slopes quickly found up to 5 singing Olive Tree Warblers (3 seen, with open views of one, which briefly sang from the edge of a large tree). This site also proved excellent for other birds. At ground level, a couple of Middle Spotted Woodpeckers were chasing each other from tree to tree, and at one time squared each other up on one trunk. Hoopoes were also evident, as well as single Cuckoo and Golden Oriole. But the best of the birds were in the air in the form of raptors - at least 4-5 Short-toed Eagles, 3 Steppe Buzzards, 3 Long-legged Buzzards, and just as we arrived at least 6 Red-footed Falcons over the ridge to the West. Again in the valley, there were small numbers of close Sombre Tits in what seemed to be family groups.
Before heading further up the valley, we trecked back down towards Napi for a site with two large rocks, where Long-legged Buzzard could be seen perched, presumably nesting near here. At this same place, there was yet another Olive Tree Warbler singing in the open, with Woodchat Shrike nearby. We then headed back North, to the end of the valley, which ascends to a hairpin bend on the right. Scanning back, we saw what was probably the spectacle of the trip. Over the western ridges, Red-footed Falcons appeared, and numbered eventually around 60 birds circling in a tight group above the ridge. After watching these for 15-20 minutes, it seemed as if they were landing, so we took a track upwards, and after about ½km, crossed fields and walls to view a small and hidden part of the valley beneath. All the falcons had landed here, and seemed everywhere - on trees, stone walls, fences, and on the ground, with yet more hawking for insects. Particularly satisfying was that we found ourselves above the birds, giving an incredibly impressive view of them. A male Lesser Kestrel joined them for a short time. After 20 mins to half an hour of this, the whole group took off as one, and headed towards the ridge, forming another tight circling mass.
Before returning to Petra, we had a report of Lanner breeding on the cliffs just to the North of the village. We watched this area for about ¾ hour, and found only a pair of Peregrines perched at the end of one of the headlands. It seems unlikely that they would tolerate another pair of falcons nearby, and we wondered if this was the pair that had been seen. One of the birds had a small fawn patch on the nape - presumably not enough to make it a Lanner? Whilst watching, a fox was in front of us, and stalked away along the headland under the watchful eye of a male Blue Rock Thrush. Out at sea, a school of 4 dolphins made their way slowly North, with a Yelkouan Shearwater in attendance. Over the calm sea, a group of a further 20 Yelkouans went both North and South (same birds?).
Achladeri Plain (Day 8)
First stop on the last morning had to be back at the Krüper's site at Achladeri Plain. When we arrived, we pulled the car up around 100m from the car park, at what we thought was the nest site. As soon as we opened the windows, Nuthatches could be heard calling, but although we sat for about 20 minutes, none came close to where we were. However, we did see Short-toed Treecreepers, including an adult being shadowed by a juvenile, and surprisingly heard our first Woodpigeons of the trip. When we left the car, we found one of the Krüper's quickly, although it was characteristically mobile, favouring the higher branches. It took a little time, but we eventually collected good views and photographs. As we arrived back at the car, it was perched on what was probably the nest bearing tree, although it seemed as if the young had fledged.
This is reputed to be the most extensive reedbed on the island, and although not large by Blacktoft or Leighton Moss standards, it certainly covers some expanse. For the birds themselves, the reeds are superb, since they still contain ample water, and this is demonstrated by the amount of song from warblers throughout. From the observing aspect, the views of the whole beds are restricted, and the seasonal pools are definitely very seasonal by this time. Walking the tracks, including the one through the centre of the reeds to the old building, did find the pools, but there was very little water visible, so negating the chance of crakes. However, walking around did find plenty of warblers, with Reed most common and vocal, followed by Olivaceous, flighty Cetti's, and the odd Sedge & Moustached Warbler. In the distance was what sounded like one or two Savi's Warblers singing, although the song did seem to be in very short bursts (possible confusion with Mole Cricket?). The reedbed abuts the sea with a narrow sandy margin which held only a single Common Sandpiper. The sea was uncannily calm. After we had covered the reedbeds, we took a drive along both banks of the river upstream from the road bridge. This is not a bad track by Lesbian standards, and although good views of the river, which was by and large either dry or stagnant, are very restricted. The whole track proved productive for both singing Nightingales and Olivaceous Warblers. The former were possibly in numbers between 20-30, with individuals regularly being seen out in the open. Also here, another Middle Spotted Woodpecker, flushed from the middle of the track.
The remaining time on the island, passing the time before having to check in at the airport, was spent at Haramida marsh. This is only a 10 minute drive, and not a bad little spot. Singing Olivaceous & Cetti's Warblers were evident, with singles of White-winged Black Tern and Little Bittern over the reeds. A pair of Short-toed Eagles were over the ridge, and a few Alpine Swifts amongst the Common Swifts.