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|A Report from birdtours.co.uk|
Prespa National Park, Northern Greece. June 2nd-7th 2004,Derek Gruar & Irini Koutseri
This was my first trip to Greece and I was lucky to have a local guide in my good friend Irini Koutseri, who works for the Society for the Protection of Prespa (SPP).
I travelled from London Stansted to Thessaloniki via Budapest on Malev Hungarian Airlines; this was booked using online travel service Opodo (www.opodo.co.uk).
Check-in was very courteous and efficient, the planes were very spacious in regards legroom, and the on-board crew were very helpful. Food was standard airline short haul fare; though a nice touch was the availability of warm bread rolls and some good quality Hungarian wines. I would not hesitate to use this Airline again if the opportunity arises in the future.
Upon arriving at Thessaloniki, I was fortunate enough to be given a lift from the airport and therefore there will be no details of practicalities regards car hire in this report.
Public transport: The number 78 bus connects the Airport to the main bus station in the city and tickets cost about 2 euros. The nearest public transport to the Prespa Lakes is to the town/city of Florina 50km to the east. Florina is connected to Thessaloniki by a scheduled coach service this costs approximately 11 Euros and takes about two to three hours depending on the number of stops and traffic levels.
One interesting stop on the way was at Edessa, home of the tallest waterfall in Greece. There are a few short walks leading down to the falls and there is the opportunity to get behind the cascade of water itself. The waterfalls were only formed in the 14th century. Until then the water from the River Edessaios was gathered in a small lake in the west of the town, until a geological phenomena induced the outflow of the water through the town creating the impressive water falls.
We also stopped at the Agras wetland, which takes its name from the nearby village. This is a small man-made lake, but it is host to several species of wildfowl in winter and other aquatic birds, while Dalmatian Pelican have been observed making a stopover on their way in between wintering and breeding sites. The area is now protected from hunting by law, and fishing is restricted.
The region of Prespa is situated in the north-western corner of Greece, in the Prefecture of Florina. It spans the borders of Greece and the two neighbouring countries of Albania and the Former Yugoslavian Republic of Macedonia (FYRoM).
The name Prespa describes the catchment basin of the two lakes, Lake Mikri (Micro) Prespa mainly in Greek territory with its southern tip belonging to Albania and Lake Megali (Macro) Prespa shared by all three countries. Mountains surround the two lakes with peaks often rising above 2000m, with the Galicica Mountains separating Lake Megali Prespa from Ohrid Lake in FYRoM. The lakes are situated at about 850 metres above sea level; there are eleven inhabited villages in the Greek region of Prespa.
The area appears geographically isolated, or at the very least rather sheltered, in truth Prespa belongs to the former geological basin of the Dassarites, which along with Ohrid Lake (shared by FYRoM and Albania) and Lake Malik (now drained for agricultural use) in Albania formed a large hydrological unit. The waters of Prespa flow through Ohrid Lake and the River Drin into the Adriatic Sea. A day trip to Ohrid Lake will be described in this trip report.
In reference to the Greek part of Prespa, the lakes are bordered to the west by Mount Vrondero and to the south by Mount Triklario which consist mainly of limestone and in the east the predominantly granite Mount Varnountas.
The presence of the large water bodies, along with arable and livestock farmland, the mountains and woodland contribute to the diversity of the fauna and flora of the area.
Over 260 species of bird, 42 species of Mammal and 21 species of Reptile have been recorded in the National Park.
For further information about the area, one can refer to the publications of the Society for the Protection of Prespa (www.spp.gr) and the Information Centre in the village of Ayios Yermanos when on site.
Place names and nomenclature
All place names here will be given as listed on the 1:50000 map produced by SPP and WWF Hellas. In many guides, Ayios Yermanos will be listed as Agios Germanos and Laimos as Lemos. This does create some confusion; therefore, we have decided that as maps will be included in this trip report then we should quote those on the maps.
Daily Trip Reports
|Birding was limited on the first morning, due to the combination of poor weather (heavy squalls) and recovery from a long days travelling and a very late night in a local bar. A first trip was made to the Isthmus and here the first sightings of both White and Dalmatian Pelicans were observed along with Pygmy Cormorant, all three of these species being new for myself. An obvious White Stork nest (pictured left) is at Koula on the west end of the isthmus near the army "checkpoint". One thing to remember is that there is no photography allowed of any military installations in Greece, there is a sign south of the Psaradhes junction warning you of this. It is very advisable that you respect this law.|
Birds seen around the village of Ayios Yermanos where I was based included numerous Tree Sparrows, House Martins and Swallows. A Grey wagtail sang from rooftops opposite the Prespa Information centre and a single Serin was seen over flying.
|The evening was much brighter and allowed us to walk around Ayios Achillios island (pictured left), a small island located in the north of Lake Mikri Prespa which is connected to the shore by a long causeway, before its construction the only way to the island was by boat or in winter the villagers used to walk across the frozen lake itself. The reeds here echoed to the constant chatter of Great Reed Warblers and the contact calls of Bearded Tits and the odd explosive call of Cetti's warblers. Great Crested Grebes were obvious on the lake along with the occasional Pelican and both species of Cormorant.|
0600-1300. A long morning walk from Ayios Yermanos along the river valley until reaching the delta of the river at Lake Megali Prespa and a return trip via the meadows and farmland along the isthmus. We left Ayios Yermanos and headed northwards crossing meadows until we reached an un-paved road on the hillside above the village, here we headed west towards Laimos. After just a few minutes strolling we are treated to, good views of the commoner species found here, Red Backed Shrike, Cirl Bunting Goldfinch, Linnet, Corn bunting and Hoopoe. Heading down towards the village of Laimos I find a pair of Sombre Tit and get poor views of a Lesser Grey Shrike as is crosses the track and perches up some distance away. High on one of the crags we can hear a far carrying call, the light is poor and we can pick out an obvious bird silhouette, which to me looks like a Blue Rock Thrush. A potentially rare sighting for the area, Upon listening to the recording (Bird songs and calls of Britain and Europe CD 3 by Jean C. Roché) later back in the village the call is more Rock Thrush than Blue Rock Thrush, with dismay we decide to list this a Rock Thrush Spp. rather than guess at it's true identity.
On the outskirts of Laimos, we are alerted to the presence of a pair of Buzzards by the noisy croaking of five Ravens that are mobbing the raptors. A few singing Sedge Warblers are found in scrub along the track.
In Laimos, a single Dipper is seen feeding along the Ayios Yermanos river, at the south end of the village there are several pairs of Red Rumped Swallow, this is the most reliable place I found to view this species.
The delta of the Ayios Yermanos river is reached by farm tracks south of Laimos, when heading away from Ayios Yermanos the track is on the Right hand side of the road and is opposite a 30km per hour road sign and also a road narrows sign. The track walked is marked in yellow on the above map.
Along this track there were several singing Black Headed Buntings, an impressive looking bird that chooses obvious song perches and therefore facilitates some excellent views, also present were the omnipresent Nightingales and Corn Buntings along with Barred Warblers, Reed Bunting, White Wagtail, and Turtle Dove.
Seven Bee-Eaters were seen perched up in a tree along this path, the area along the river banks behind an EU Life Project sign that almost certainly holds a small colony of these most colourful of birds, at least two singing male Black Headed Buntings were in this area too.
Just before the delta, there is a track on the right-hand side that leads to the riverbank, here there were nesting Penduline Tits and Reed Warblers were heard singing in the phragmytes fringing the lake. Golden Orioles were heard regularly here too.
Pelicans, Herons and Cormorants can be seen at the delta, a word of caution though, the Pelicans are very "flighty" and it's suggested that anyone who walks down to the delta doesn't walk out into the open area near the lake shore as this will cause the birds to panic and take flight.
The main track heads along the isthmus and reaches the road west of the two observation towers, two rusty signs are on the roadside here. The land here is carpeted with wildflowers and there are small arable fields, the avifauna reflects this with small flocks of Turtle Doves being flushed from the trackside, also present are Crested Lark and in the reeds Marsh warblers mimic a variety of species I watched one bird singing as it mimicked Bee-eater, House Martin, Swallow and Lapwing. On the wires on the opposite side of the road a male Yellow Wagtail (Feldegg) sang, this is quite a stunning bird with a dark black head contrasting sharply with it's otherwise yellow plumage.
|I walked back up the road and just after the bend, (indicated by several black and white chevrons) I turned left and headed back to Laimos retracing my steps along the original track. Along the Isthmus several Black Headed Buntings sang and a female Marsh Harrier spiralled into the reeds on the north end of Lake Mikri Prespa, the observation towers don't provide a great view of many birds though they were providing nesting sites for Tree Sparrows and Swallows!|
||Habitat Along the Isthmus|
In the late evening we headed to Mikrolimni in the south east corner of Mikri Prespa, the car park in the village overlooks some reeds that was home to Squacco Herons and Pygmy Cormorants, this would be a good spot to get some close up photos of these species. Just outside the village of Oxya a Lesser Grey Shrike and Bee-eater were seen on the roadside. This area will be discussed later.
The only other sighting of note was the first Common Whitethroat of the trip on the road between Lefkonas and Platy.
Early morning is cold and very windy; we travel up the road to Psaradhes and take the track on the left hand side just past the church of Ayios Georgios (St. George). The church has in a sense protected the trees around it, creating a unique Mediterranean habitat of centuries-old Junipers of the species Greek Juniper (Juniperus excelsa) and Stinking Juniper (J. foetidissima). The notion that the area is holy, protected by the Saint has prevented disturbance by local people. This small cluster of trees is the second nucleus of total protection of the Prespa National Park.
The track leads up through the woods and gives an outlook onto the pelican colonies several kilometres away. On a fine day, the vistas over the lakes would be breathtaking. Sombre Tits, Chaffinches and Cirl Buntings are the only species out braving the poor weather conditions here. Upon our return, a single Alpine Swift flies over the church.
Irini has to return to the office so I get the use of a car for the rest of the morning to go and explore, she suggests that I visit the near deserted village of Milionas; here the village has only one inhabited house. The weather improves markedly and I'm able to follow a track between Milionas and Laimos along here both Common and Lesser Whitethroat are found along with more obliging Sombre tits, the poplars along here also held Golden Oriole.
From here, I travelled to the area outside Oxya mentioned on the previous evening, I followed a farm track just outside the village. The track I took was one of two found near a small hut/bus shelter this was the one slightly closer to the road junction and appears to head off towards a wooded mountainside. Once crossing another sand track after about 100m there are some sandy banks that has had some recent excavations. In the face of the bank, there were at least three active Bee-Eater nests and from the car, awesome views of these birds could be gained without disturbance. The barley fields here had half a dozen calling Quail and Black Headed Buntings sang from bushes along the track. Lesser Grey Shrikes were also in the vicinity. I also witnessed possibly one of the most colourful interspecies behaviours I have ever seen when a male Golden Oriole and a Bee-Eater were involved in a mid air battle over an insect.
A short stroll in the woods produced more Sombre tits and Cirl buntings along with Hoopoe and a tortoise! (Not your everyday find for a person who is based in Bedfordshire).
I returned for lunch via the farm tracks that run opposite the village of Platy, here the usual mix of Red Backed Shrikes, Nightingales and Corn Buntings were in evidence though nothing else of note was seen around these more intensively farmed areas. The weather in the afternoon deteriorates again into windy squalls, later in the early evening we set out on a stroll up the Ayios Yermanos river valley. The first new species is a Nuthatch that is found on the outskirts of the village, we also hear Green Woodpecker and find a female Golden Oriole along the track as well as a few White Wagtails. We follow the track until it bridges the stream/river here at higher altitudes there is a gathering of 10-15 Cirl Buntings in a pre-roost flock. On the way back into Ayios Yermanos, we find a Little Owl on a telegraph pole in the village being mobbed by the local Swallows and House Martins. The end of the day is celebrated sitting on the porch with a can of Guinness each that I brought over from the UK.
We are lucky to be able to use a 4x4 vehicle in the early morning to travel up the hills behind the village, this track is only accessible by 4x4 vehicle, and some care is still required. This is one area I wish I had further time to explore; I feel there are several other species that could have been found here that we did not have time to locate. The birding here has a much more western European feel to it as Chiffchaffs and Cuckoos are readily heard in the predominantly Oak woods Blue, Great and Coal Tits can be found more readily than elsewhere, a single Marsh Tit is found along the track and the only pair of Bullfinches seen on the trip. We are unable to reach the coniferous woodland and the boulders and crags above the tree line due to a tree fall blocking the track ahead.
|View across the Prespa Lakes from above Ayios Yermanos|
In the evening, we head down to Mikrolimni. A Woodchat Shrike flies across the road between and Karyes and the Mikrolimni junction, unfortunately we are unable to relocate the bird. Once in the village of Mikrolimni we follow a path south west out of the village, the track to follow heads slightly uphill for a few metres (the lower path only goes as far as a disused biological Station. After just a few metres the top path opens out into a natural amphitheatre where quarrying of the rock face occurs, this area has 2-3 pairs of Crag Martins in attendance and numerous White wagtails fly around the rock face. A walk along over looking the south end of Lake Mikri Prespa yields Subalpine warblers, many carrying food, and the best views of a very slate grey looking Cuckoo and the usual chatter of Great Reed Warblers from the lake edge. Cirl Buntings were also present.
We return just on dusk and whilst driving back we flush a Nightjar off the road just after the Mikrolimni junction not far from Kale hill, where the woodchat shrike was seen a few hours earlier, the bird then attempts to catch a moth it has spotted in the glare of the car headlights.
A non-birding day trip into the FYRoM to visit the third of the Lakes in the Prespa region, Ohrid Lake, we start by following the road to the border from Florina (only half an hour drive through farmland). Time spent in the borders was thankfully limited and then we follow the road towards and through the town of Bitola and then straight on to Ohrid Lake. Signposting is generally OK, but lacking in some places so some advanced route planning and an idea of your general direction of travel is advised.
Lake Ohrid is somewhat larger that Lake Megali Prespa and covers an area of 258 km2 and at its deepest point is 286 m. As is the case for the Prespa lakes, Ohrid is surrounded by mountains with several peaks over 2000 metres above sea level, while Mount Galicica separates it from Prespa. Some 20% of its water comes from Megali Prespa through underground flow.
The town of Ohrid is very picturesque; especially the old part of town and you can walk almost along the lakeside to the 13th century church of St. John, away from the busy town to have a pleasant view of the both town and the lake. From there follow the path upward and you find yourself at the outskirts of the old town castle, which has been recently refurbished. As a previous Episcopal centre, the town has many monuments and walking through the centre feels like a walk into the past. While in town do not forget to try the delicious grilled Ohrid trout served in a fantastic sauce, which is one of the culinary attractions of the area.
Wanting to get a better view of the lake we follow the road, that runs along the eastern shore, to the monastery of St. Naum. There, apart from the view, you can also choose to go on a boat ride along the coast. Instead, we chose to get on the boat run by local guide Nikola, which takes you to view the freshwater springs, where the water from Megali Prespa flows into Lake Ohrid. This small wetland is part of the Galicica national park and the prohibition of motorboats makes a relaxing 30 min trip, while Nikola's stories are very always very entertaining while he paddles the boat through the crystal clear waters.
On our way back we chose to follow the mountain road that connects Prespa to Ohrid, which is advisable not to be done during winter it is snow covered and landslides often occur. Following the same road back from St. Naum, we turned off towards Otesevo, and up the mountain. The views of Lake Ohrid are breathtaking; the immensity of its size becomes increasingly apparent the higher we travelled upward. There is a point where both Lake Ohrid and Lake Megali Prespa can be seen, but the weather did not allow us to climb up to the lookout point.
Coming down from the mountain you fall onto Lake Megali Prespa and taking a turn left at the junction we made our way back through the town of Resen.
Although Birdwatching was poor, mainly because of the weather and partly also because of the lack of time, it is an excellent day trip and a worthwhile cultural experience.
After a very long days travelling in FYRoM, my last full day in the Prespa area is quite a relaxed one. Again I'm fortunate to have the use of the car and I travel around on fleeting visits to some of the areas that I have yet to visit, this means coverage is a little patchy but I wanted to get a flavour of some of the other habitats that have previously not seen.
In the late morning, I travelled to the areas around the villages of Pyli and Vrondero, west of Pily the road climbs through dense woodland and then opens out into scrub and pastoral land as you approach the village of Vrondero, which is the only village that does not have a view of the lake.
The woodland held Mistle Thrush and Jays were often seen flying across the road, also seen and heard hear were Lesser Whitethroat, Blue and Great Tit and Chaffinch (again all very typical western European species). The agricultural fields around Vrondero were home to 2-3 Northern Wheatears, the only occasion that I came across this species during the trip, a fact that surprised me, as there seems to be an abundance of habitat for such birds in the area. Quails called from nearby cereal fields and Crested Larks, Tree Sparrows, Turtle Doves and Cirl Buntings were all numerous along the roadsides. The highlight of this area was the best views of a party of Sombre Tits including several fledged juveniles.
Between Vrondero and Pyli there is a dirt track that leads off the main road and heads north towards the shore of Lake Megali Prespa on the 1:50000 map (the best map available from Prespa Info centres) there is a place called Pixo's Sheepfold on this trail. Here I find another new species, the recently split Eastern Bonelli's Warbler (I have been lucky enough to have ringed several of the western species at the Bird Observatory at Gibraltar), I find a male in full song and another bird carrying caterpillars.
On my return towards Ayios Yermanos for lunch I find a raptor flying across the road between Pyli and Ayios Achillios Island, it turns out to be the only Short Toed Eagle of the trip and is quite obliging as it soars only a few metres over my head carrying off a snake!
Another fortunate sighting on my drive back is a Little Bittern that crosses the road within a few metres of my car just past the military post at Koula. Later in the day, a Purple Heron flew into the reeds here upon our leaving the restaurant at this location.
In the afternoon I head off to the south shore of Megali Prespa to an area opposite Psaradhes bay to walk a couple of tracks that we were prevented from walking earlier in the week due to a torrential thunderstorm. Birding here is very quiet with the odd Chaffinch and Cirl Bunting. I follow the left hand path that reaches a couple of benches overlooking a rocky beach several metres below. There are 5-6 pairs of Crag Martins in the air and a single Alpine Swift.
My attention is drawn to movement in the rocks about 20 metres in front of me, and suddenly I see a flash of metallic blue appear on a rock before me.. indeed it is finally a male Blue Rock Thrush. Initially it perches obligingly for a few seconds and then heads off down to the beach where it again perches up and starts to sing, this may well be a first for Prespa! A fact that needs to be checked up on, excitedly I head back to the SPP offices in Ayios Yermanos to tell of my finding.
In the evening I am again fortunate to be able to assist Irini and her two colleagues, Lazaros and Leonidas in conducting flight counts on one of the Heronries on lake Mikri Prespa. The count is conducted from 18:00 to 20:30 and all inward and outward movements of birds are recorded. The colony is viewed from the small hill overlooking Ayios Achillios Island, called Krina and provides a breathtaking panorama for my last evening in the country. During the count, we note flights from Grey and Purple Herons and Little and Great White Egrets. Fly pasts by Night and Squacco Herons are frequent and Little Bitterns are readily seen either in flight between areas of reeds or clambering up the vegetation themselves, a 2 hour observation from this viewpoint will I'm sure provide views of this species on a regular basis. The last highlight of my trip was saved towards the end of the evening, when a Peregrine caused a commotion within the nesting birds and the on looking ecologists. The bird dived at full speed it into the water and carried off a juvenile Great Crested Grebe that must have thought that it was safe from avian predation sheltering in the reeds! Again, this species is seldom seen in the Prespa region.
Overall I feel that I have seen a great deal of interesting things, but also have the suspicion that I have only seen a small snapshot of what this area has to offer, there are so many tracks and trails I wish I had several hours to go and explore. The birds of the higher altitudes were not searched for and woodpeckers were amazingly elusive!
I hope that this trip report will be useful for a guide for anyone wishing to visit the area, it is one of the most beautiful places on the planet, and the scenery is quite awe inspiring with the mountains adding a dramatic backdrop to the two lakes. I hope that I will have the time to visit the area again in the near future.
Derek Gruar: (and Crimson Rosella @ O'Reilly's Guesthouse lamington NP. Qld)
Works for the conservation science department of the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds. Has worked on Song Thrush ecology and other farmland bird projects. Qualified Ringer/Bander.
Has travelled extensively birding with favourite moments including finding Bee Hummingbird in Cuba and being chased by a Cassowary in Queensland.
Works as a Biologist for the Society for the Protection of Prespa. She has previously worked on Skylarks in the UK and European Rollers in France.
Birdwatching the last couple of years, with favourite moment elusive Pin-Tailed Sandgrouse in southern France. Is grateful to Derek (above) for the experience of ringing some of her favourite birds, with Kingfisher (and Chiffchaffs) as a highlight.
Species List for Prespa National Park 2nd-7th June 2004.