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|A Report from birdtours.co.uk|
North-eastern Greece, 29 January-3 February 2005,
North-eastern Greece is a well-known birding destination in spring. Places such as Evros Delta and Dadia Forest, Porto Lagos and Nestos Delta attract several birders (as myself in 2003) in this season and so information on where to watch birds in the area, either printed or in the web, mainly focuses on the April-May period. However, the whole area, and especially the Evros Delta, is exceptionally good in mid-winter for wintering geese and eagles and in this trip report I will try to convey what my friend Simone and I saw, learnt and felt (mainly cold) during a six-day visit to the Evros delta and Dadia-Soufli forest areas in the days from 29 January to 3 February 2005.
If you are going to visit the area keep in mind that the Evros delta is a wintering ground for the threatened Lesser White-fronted Goose. So, when you will approach a flock of geese STAY IN THE CAR. Getting out of the car is the best way to make geese fly outside the small protected area and get killed by the several hunters who patrol the borders of it. And I do not think that they are able to distinguish between flying White-fronted and Lesser White-fronted Geese..... To watch the geese I suggest either to fix the scope at the car window by something like the Manfrotto 243/486RC2 clamp/head, or if you judge it safe, just open slowly the car door, put the scope on the tripod outside the car and watch while still sitting in the car. Of course, two birders per car is the ideal number of people for doing this.
We used both Gosney’s “Finding Birds in Greece” and “Where to watch birds in Turkey, Greece, and Cyprus” by Welch et al. I will refer to the maps depicted in these books but also I present here an updated one of the Traianoupolis area. There is only one trip report in the web which refers to birding in winter in NE Greece, by Janne and Hanna Aalto (at http://koti.mbnet.fi/caligata/greece.html) from which we got inspiration. There is also a commercial site with nice pictures of the birds of the area and some information by Bill Baston and Richard Brooks at http://home.btconnect.com/bt-uk-connect-012/Travel_etc.html, which I suggest to visit, but nothing more.
Logistic, Accommodation, and Permit
We decided to travel by night in order to gain a whole day of birding, so we took the 20.55 pm flight from Rome to Athens on 28 January, slept some hours in the airport and took the 5.10 am flight to Alexandroupolis. At 6.30 am we picked up the car from Hertz in Alexandroupolis airport (a new Fiat Panda - high ground clearance - booked by internet) and at the first lights we were already birding.
We booked a room by phone in what was apparently the only hotel in Traianoupolis open in January (Hotel Traianoupolis) but comically, we misidentified the Hotel Isidora for the former (but, please, trust in our bird identification skills). This hotel was in fact open (to accommodate some hunters) and the owner, a stereotype of a Greek old lady, gave us a double room for 30 euros per night. This hotel (phone: 25510 29998; fax: 25510 37651) had also a restaurant, where we had dinner all nights (the lady was always kind in preparing us some sandwiches - good if you like feta cheese - for lunch). We had also enjoyable conversation with the lady and his husband (who seemed to be glued to a chair eating something of undefined in front of the TV), as with our typical Italian gestures and a few words of Greek, interspersed with some English, we even managed to converse about birds (but my “huu...huu” was essential for the general understanding of the bird we were talking about…..). In a few words, we tried to make those people know that we where there to watch birds, because we think that for the future conservation of the area (as everywhere in the world) locals must feel eco-tourism as an economical resource.
We asked in advance the permit to visit the military area of the delta through the Evros Delta Visitor Center, writing to firstname.lastname@example.org. At the Evros Delta Visitor Center in Traianoupolis, (tel: 25510-61000 fax: 25510-61020, e-mail: email@example.com) they are doing a great job in managing and preserving the area and need to be supported in any way. So at least buy something when you go to get the permit, or ask if they need help in some bird survey as we did.
Pigmy Cormorant - Photo Ernesto Occhiato
29 January. Public circuit around the delta - Loutros Hill. Cold and cloudy. We arrived at Traianoupolis (14 km from the airport) when it is was still dark. We tried to find the hotel without success. Meanwhile, at the first lights, we began to see the first Greater Spotted Eagles flying over the Loutros river toward the delta. This prompted us to abandon the search of the hotel and go directly to the delta following the public circuit (from point 5, see map) along the Loutros river. Before the railways there are fields on the right and the left. These were full of Starlings (many thousands) and larks (Skylarks and Crested Larks, abundant everywhere, actually) feeding on the ground, and Buzzards, Marsh and Hen Harriers trying to catch what they could. As we arrived at the NW corner of the Drana lagoon we had the bad surprise that the graded road skirting the lagoon was interrupted (point 4 on the map), but we were relieved by discovering a passable track (I do not think it is so after heavy rain though) that followed the canal eastward for some kilometers until a bridge over the canal (point 3). Driving over we were on the so called public circuit and continued right toward the Drana lagoon. Along the canal we saw several Marsh Harriers and Buzzards (one of these caught a vole just a few meters ahead of us, beautiful!). We finally reached the lagoon and drove along the western side leaving the canal on our right. The graded road that skirts the lagoon appeared to me even worse than in spring 2003, with a lot more potholes. On the edge of the lagoon we kept seeing Greater Spotted Eagles, Marsh Harriers, Great White Egrets, high numbers of ducks of various species (with Teals forming huge flocks that looked like Starlings’ flocks), scattered shorebirds (Avocet being common; we searched amongst the Curlews with a faint hope – very faint - for Slender-billed Curlew) and some Pigmy Cormorants along the canal. Eventually we reached the south-western corner of the lagoon and the fields of the protected area. Here we met the first flocks of White-fronted Goose, and more Greater Spotted Eagles. We reached the wooden observatory (more about this later on) at the SW corner of the public circuit and from here we drove east to the pumping station. Here, in the canal there were several (and confident I would say) Dalmatian Pelicans and one single White Pelican (so pink that I would change its name....). After enjoying the close sight of these magnificent birds we kept driving (and seeing birds) almost till the military post of Egnatia. On the way back my first lifer: distant in the field just past the pumping station I spotted a big black bird on the ground, surrounded by four or five smaller ones. Through the scope the first was an adult Eastern Imperial Eagle, feeding on a prey or carcass, attended by some Greater Spotted Eagles. Eventually, after about one hour, the sated Imperial Eagle flew away to perch on a distant tree. After lunch (a sandwich bought at the airport) we went back to Traianoupolis and found the Hotel Isidora open. We took possess of our room and went to the Evros Delta Visitor Center, on the other side of the Loutros river where Eleni gave us the permit for the military area she had kindly got for us.
At about 2.30 pm we were under the craggy hill dominating the Traianoupolis’ hotel area (the one with the white chapel on its top, on the track from point 6 after the hotel Athina). Here we experienced for the first time the return flight of the eagles from the delta to the roosting areas, counting six or seven Greater Spotted Eagles one after the other. The following days we will count even more of them sometimes accompanied by one or two White-tailed Eagles. While looking at the eagles a series of deep “hu” came from the pine plantation, but illusion and excitement were brief as it was simply a Long-eared Owl. We had still to wait a couple of days for the great encounter. A cold rain pushed then us back into the hotel. After dinner a Little Owl wished us the good night.
Dalmatian Pelicans near the pumping station. Photo Ernesto Occhiato.
30 January. Public circuit – Loutros – Avandas gorge. Cold and windy. We tried again the Evros delta from point 5, but along the road we were caught by a snow shower. We stopped near a wooded section of the Loutros river and looked at the birds present there, among which one Syrian Woodpecker, various thrushes and finches, while a flock of Rooks passed by. As the snow was falling heavier now, we decided to go back toward Loutros and so we parked after the village in front of a open wood of magnificent Plane-trees. The wind was blowing really hard now, but despite this we managed to digiscope a male Syrian Woodpecker on the highest branch of a tree. The weather seemed better now over the delta and so we moved to do the whole public circuit again. Usual birds, plus one adult and a 2nd cal-year White-tailed Eagle, a flock of Flamingoes, some Spoonbills, some Black Kites, numerous Avocets, two Slender-billed Gulls, a Quail (seen very well from the car near the military post of Egnatia) and a 1st-winter Caspian Gull.
In the afternoon we drove to the Avandas gorge, but it was too windy for birding and saw only a Peregrine in the gorge and another Syrian Woodpecker near the old castle.
White and Dalmatian Pelicans near the pumping station. Photo Ernesto Occhiato
31 January. Road from Loutros to Dadia via Pessani. Cold and sunny. The road that goes north from Loutros to Dadia via Pessani, crosses a wonderful stretch of forested hills. Target birds along the road were mainly woodpeckers. The first stop was at the Pessani bridge, near a Sarakatsani’s settlement (former nomadic shepherds) where we were greeted by a pack of snarling dogs that tried even to jump over the car to gnaw us (exactly as it happened two years before…). Simone optimistically considered that they were good dogs, but then I invited him to get out of the car to make friends with them, if he could….Anyway, while we were surrounded by the barking dogs a Middle Spotted Woodpecker landed on a trunk nearby. And above in the air a couple of Black Vultures was gliding toward the Dadia feeding station. We left the dogs without food (our flesh) and moved on to stop again in a more open area where we saw some Hawfinches and another Middle Spotted Woodpecker. From the next cross-road we went left toward N. Sanda and followed the road for a good tract (Grey-headed Woodpecker was Simone’s target bird) but, as it went higher, more and more ice was on the asphalt. We reckoned that if we had had an accident there, in the middle of nothing, we would probably become food for the last bear of the Evros mountains before someone could aid us and so we went back, and then north to Dadia. At the Dadia eco-center we arranged for the minibus to bring us up to the observatory. From here we saw 17 Black Vultures, more than twenty Griffon Vultures, one Golden Eagle (a 2nd cal-year bird) and an immature White-tailed Eagle that, fed up with the continuous disturbance by some vultures, attacked one the Griffons pursuing it along the entire valley and trying to stroke it with its claws!! Nice natural history scene!
My headache at this point was unbearable (despite a couple of pills) and we walked back through the pine forest to the eco-center were we had a well deserved coffee. Simone drove to Traianoupolis (I was agonizing) and I went to bed to wake up late in the afternoon. As it was a very calm evening we decided to drive the first section of the road just north of Loutros, parking near the crags (or where we remembered there were crags, as it was becoming pitch dark) but a part from a Tawny Owl (though its call was very evocative in that context) we did not hear anything else.
Middle Spotted Woodpecker near Pessani bridge. Photo Ernesto Occhiato
01 February. Public circuit and military area – Avandas gorge. Cold, windy and sunny. This was a sort of big day, as we saw all but one of our target birds. We entered the delta area from point 3 on the map (this point can be better reached by the unpaved road/track which leaves the old E5 at point 1 after a short tract from the Hotel Plotini. In heavy rain the section of this road below the new E5 could be impassable by a 2WD car) and drove directly toward the SW corner of the circuit, where the wooden observatory is. If outside the eastern wind was strong, inside was exactly the same, no chance to have a shelter, as the glasses of all of the large windows were broken. Eventually, after scrutinizing again the large flocks of White-fronted Geese, Simone picked up one of his lifers, some Red-breasted Geese. There were only 17 of them, but close and I managed to film them (in winter 2004 there was a flock of about 200 birds).
Having the permit in our hand we drove to the military post of Egnatia. A young and kind officer, after checking permit and passports, let us finally enter the mythical military area of the Evros delta. From the military post we did a clockwise circuit, thus driving along the Evros river first in a wonderful and suggestive landscape. Strangely, there were much less birds in the fields here than around the Drana lagoon, but near the Nimphon lagoon we stopped to check what seemed a big flock of Mute Swans. But they weren’t. We in fact counted more than 350 Whooper Swans and 150 Bewick’s Swans resting on the partially iced marhes. We finally reached the sea and here we saw much more birds, including a Lanner perched on a branch a few meters from the road, though the number of raptors was for sure lower here than in the public area. We completed the military circuit and went back near the pumping station, stopping before the wooden observatory. From here we saw again an adult Eastern Imperial Eagle, now on the military area side, that tried in several occasions to catch some ducks, but without success. While I was still looking at the eagle, Simone gave a look at the fields around. I heard some embarrassment in Simone’s voice when he said that there were four strange grouse-like birds distant in the field. We soon identified them as Little Bustards. This species once bred in the area, but I am sure it is very rare nowadays. Who knows if the good maintenance of the fields in the protected area will help these birds establish again themselves.....Completing the circuit, we saw on the canal west of the Drana lagoons at least 80 Dalmatian Pelicans placidly swimming and the usual numbers of Greater Spotted Eagles.
At 4.00 pm we left the delta and drove to the Avandas gorge. Timing (late afternoon) and weather (wind was weak now) were now perfect. And when there was still light we heard one of our most sought after birds, Eagle Owl. Simone and I could not believe that a dream was coming true. I checked the crags and saw the owl perched on a distant rock. We had full view with the scope. The white throat was flashing in the fading light at any vocal emission. It sang until it was almost dark and then it flew away. For food, I guess, kindly provided in the form of rats and gulls by the nearby Alexandroupolis’s refuse dump. We particularly enjoyed our dinner that night.
Whooper and Bewick’s Swans. Photo Ernesto Occhiato
02 February. Public circuit. The last (not for our will) day. Cold, cloudy and windless in the morning until evening, heavy snow from night on….
We gave us the last chance for Lesser White-fronted Goose, a lifer for Simone, but despite searching once again among the flocks of White-fronted Geese, we did not find any Lesser. We knew that they were there somewhere but at least we had to give up. We saw the usual birds of the delta and after lunch we drove along the road from point 3 to point 1 on the map. This is a very good area for raptors (Black Kites are numerous, some Red Kites, Merlin, Greater Spotted Eagles, Harriers….). When still near the bridge over the canal we noticed a big pale raptor flying high toward Traianoupolis. We thought it was a fulvescens Greater Spotted Eagle, but through the scope it revealed itself as a young Eastern Imperial Eagle. We drove as fast as we could toward the farm (point 2) where the eagle seemed to have landed, but it was instead flying low, so low over our heads that we did not need binoculars to enjoy that sight for almost half an hour. Pity I had not with me my 400 mm lens. Just before the road passes below the new E5 a track on the left led to a low hill from where we had a good view of the entire area.
From the hotel we watched the usual commuting of Spotted Eagles from the delta to the interior, with a couple of White-tailed Eagles with them.
After dinner, we walked to our room under the first snow flakes....
Greater Spotted Eagle, in the fields near Drana lagoon. Photo Ernesto Occhiato.
03 February. Back home (perhaps…). We woke up early, but soon realized that things were not quite right outside and that our birding holiday was going to end two days before we planned. A thick layer of snow covered everything, more snow was still coming down and an awfully strong wind was wiping off the landscape. Cars proceeded slowly on the E5 and, for sure police was going to close the road for some days (as in fact happened). Meanwhile the first Bramblings, finches and buntings started to land in front of the hotel, the beginning of a huge mass invasion of birds from east. We witnessed this later through the glasses of the lounge in the airport, as we counted that day several thousands songbirds that flied low over the runway in the windstorm trying to escape the bad weather. Some of the most unfortunate did not succeed in overtake the airport buildings and died after the collision: some thrushes and larks, and a yellowhammer just in front of us, and others we did not identified. We reached the airport thanks to some Superior assistance as in some section of the 14 km of the snow-covered road from Traianoupolis to the airport the bad weather made visibility less than zero. Of course no flights that day and we stayed in the airport till night.
To shorten the story that night we slept in Alexandroupolis, the next day we tried again at the airport for any flight to Athens, but nothing to do. So we took an afternoon train to Athens and after a whole night spent in a diesel train (no electricity for the railways in Greece) we finally reached Athens.
Syrian Woodpecker in the Plane-tree wood past Loutros. Photo Ernesto Occhiato.
In this trip we totaled 112 species of birds, among these 15 species were raptors. If you need a full list write me. These were the most interesting species for us, two lifers for me and eight for Simone:
White Pelican (1)
Dalmatian Pelican (90-100, on the canals surrounding Drana lagoon)
Pigmy Cormorant (several along the canal surrounding Drana lagoon)
Whooper Swan (350+ in the military area)
Bewick’s Swan (150+ in the military area)
White-fronted Goose (600+ especially in the fields around Drana lagoon)
Red-breasted Goose (17 together with the White-fronted)
Griffon Vulture (several at the Dadia Feeding station)
Black Vulture (19, of which 17 at the Dadia feeding station)
Golden Eagle (1 at the feeding station)
Eastern Imperial Eagle (1 ad. bird in the delta and 1 young bird near Traianoupolis)
Greater Spotted Eagle (at least 15 in the delta)
Red Kite (some in the delta)
Black Kite (much more numerous than Red Kite)
Hen Harrier (seen every day, both males and females)
Lanner Falcon (1 in the military area)
Peregrine Falcon (1 in the Avandas gorge)
Little Bustard (4, in the field south of Drana lagoon)
Avocet (common in the delta)
Slender-billed Gull (some in the delta area)
Caspian Gull (2 or 3 1st-winter birds)
Eagle Owl (1 male in the Avandas gorge)
Long-eared Owl (1 heard)
Syrian Woodpecker (common around the villages and the airport, seen every day)
Middle-spotted Woodpecker (4 around Pessani area)
Blue Rock Thrush (1 in the Avandas gorge)
Hawfinch (5-6 around Pessani area).