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|A Report from birdtours.co.uk|
Winter Bird Watching in Northern Cyprus December 2009,
I visited Northern (Turkish) Cyprus for two weeks from 19th December 2009 to 2nd January 2010. This was primarily a family holiday for the Christmas period, but I have a very understanding non-birding wife and son, so I was able to make the most of the frequent opportunities for some birding. Some of the best birds were seen on family day trips out from the car anyway.
There is little information available about making a bird watching trip to Northern Cyprus, so I have tried to provide some background information and some tips on things like travel arrangements, car hire, and border crossings. If you are planning your own visit to Northern Cyprus, you will hopefully find this information quite useful.
Getting there and travel arrangements
If you are going to visit Northern Cyprus, you can organise your own trip and accommodation quite easily, and you do not need to use an agent or local ‘on the ground’ tour operator. However, there are a few local ‘anomalies’ that you should be aware of before you start booking things.
Firstly, contrary to some of the promises on various UK ‘flight finder’ web sites, there are currently NO direct flights to Ercan Airport, (the only international passenger airport in Northern Cyprus), from the UK. This is because no country other than Turkey itself recognises the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus, so most airlines do not fly there direct.
To get to Northern Cyprus, you can fly from several UK airports via a Turkish mainland airport such as Antalya or Instanbul, (you either stay on the plane in Turkey for about an hour before making the short flight to Ercan, or you change flights completely). Alternatively, you can fly direct to an airport in Southern Cyprus from the UK and drive to the North. That’s what we did. We flew with easyjet from Gatwick to Paphos.
To get the best out of your time and to reach the best birding sites, you will definitely need to hire a car, as Cyprus is a large island. If you are not careful, car hire can present potential problems for the visiting bird watcher, particularly if you are not fully informed before you make your travel plans.
If you fly to Ercan in the North and hire a car in the North, you cannot take that car over the border into the South. This restricts your birding to the North of the island. However, if you fly into the South and rent a car there you CAN take that car over the border into the North, providing you buy some additional insurance at the border when you cross. (See below).
As we intended to visit friends in the South and I also wanted to bird a couple of sites in the South, we decided to fly to Paphos and drive our hired car to Northern Cyprus. This allowed me to cross the border in the car to visit sites in the South several times during our 2 week stay with no problems at all.
I chose a 4x4 hire car and I was glad of this when I visited many birding sites as some tracks would be impassable in a 2 wheel drive car. (See comments about Gecitkoy and Akdeniz Reservoirs below).
There are loads of car rental companies in Cyprus listed on the internet, just shop around for the best deal. Our Suzuki 4wd cost around £16 a day from Economy Car Rental.
The drive from Paphos Airport in the South to Nicosia and the Metehan border crossing was dual carriageway all the way and took just over 2 hours. Unfortunately, after reaching Nicosia, we then wasted another hour just finding the border crossing at Metehan. The crossing is not high profile and it is hidden away in a back street of Nicosia and it is not well sign posted. (We were also driving at night, which did not help us in spotting what few signs there are). When we eventually found the border crossing, we presented our passports and purchased the additional insurance for our hire car. This insurance cost us 40 Euros for our 2 week stay, although it would have covered us for 30 days if we had stayed longer.
A note about the border crossing: If you intend to visit Greece in the near future, ask the passport control officer to stamp a slip of paper and not your passport. If you have a Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus visa stamp in your passport, I understand that you may have difficulties getting into Greece.
Out and about
The Turkish Cypriots, like their counter-parts on the Turkish Mainland are very friendly, welcoming and hospitable people. Even in very remote rural areas, a few words of ‘phrase book’ Turkish seemed to greatly impress people, usually resulting a smile and a handshake, and on one occasion, a cup of Turkish tea. The children in Akdeniz village were particularly fascinated by my binoculars and telescope!
Be aware of feral dogs in and around villages in rural areas. There are a lot of them, and some can be quite aggressive and territorial. A useful tip I learned some time ago, was always carry a few titbits for dogs in a pocket when bird watching in remote areas abroad, as even the wildest of dogs do not tend to bite people who feed them. On this trip, a rather smelly salami sausage and a Leatherman tool to cut chunks off with came in very handy! Unfortunately, this sometimes meant that I was followed around for hours by several hungry but now friendly dogs.
When eating out, food is generally excellent although menus are dominated by meat dishes, including a wide variety of Kebabs, served with rice and salads. Avoiding ‘burger and chips’ holidaymaker establishments and venturing into café bars and restaurants patronised by local people produced the best food and the lowest prices. A very good mixed kebab main course for three people, including beers for the adults and soft drinks for my son, plus teas/coffees afterwards often cost less than £30 in total.
Supermarkets are plentiful and most accept credit cards or cash. You can buy most of the groceries you can get in the UK and there are few surprises, although I can particularly recommend the sweet and sticky pastries that are on offer at the bakeries and deli counters. There is a local market in Girne on Wednesday mornings on a large site adjacent to the Police Station. Here you can buy fresh fruit and vegetables, nuts and other delicacies at very good prices. The currency is the Turkish Lira, which at the time of our trip was about 2.40 to UK Sterling.
Don’t be alarmed by the huge military presence in and around Northern Cyprus. It is occupied territory after all, so seeing large numbers of soldiers should not be a surprise. As long as you don’t start waving binoculars and scopes around near army bases or military installations, you should have no problems. Security checks and road-blocks are routinely encountered when you are out and about in a car, but tourists are in my experience waved through most checkpoints. I carried my UK photo-card driving licence or my passport with me in the car whenever I went out, but rarely needed to produce either document.
Accommodation and Birding Sites
There is a lot of good quality accommodation available in Northern Cyprus during the winter months, and I am sure you would be able to negotiate a very good deal on a hotel or an appartment, as none of them are fully booked. There are also lots of small B&B type hotels located in the centre of Girne (Kyrenia). We rented a villa set on the hillside on the edge of the village of Edremit. The village is located just off the main road from Girne to Lapta and is reached by turning left at the Mandos ice cream parlour after the American University and Lamar Supermarket (when heading away from Girne).
Our villa (like large parts of the island) was surrounded by low bushes and scrub habitat with one or two open grassy areas and a few scattered trees. Sadly, I am sure these currently large wild areas around Edremit will eventually disappear under the new residential housing that seems to be creeping ever further up the hillside.
The backdrop to our villa was dominated by great views of the Kyrenia Mountains and St Hilarion Castle, so with most books and guides talking of wintering Long-Legged Buzzards, Bonelli’s Eagles and Griffon Vultures, I expected some easy raptor-watching from the villa’s patio. However, I was disappointed to find that raptor-watching from anywhere on the island was a somewhat unproductive exercise with only 2 raptor species seen during our entire 14 day holiday.
However, a bonus was that the scrub and trees around our villa produced many of the species seen during the two week visit, along with the only Owls of the trip (Scops Owl - heard often but not seen and Little Owl – seen and heard well frequently). The scrub around the villa also yielded all but one of the Warbler Species seen, (Cettis, Sardinian, Cyprus, Spectacled, Fan-tailed, Chiffchaff, and Blackcap), as well as Chukar.
Bird watching Guides and Maps
There was almost no information on the internet about watching birds in Northern Cyprus, (particularly in the winter months), so it was difficult to prepare well for my limited bird watching time on this holiday. My ‘bible’ for this trip was Steve Cale’s excellent book, ‘Where to Watch Birds in Northern Cyprus’, which was very useful. This book also contains some good maps.
I also took with me the helpful but now very dated Stagg & Hearl ‘Birdwatching Guide to Cyprus’ and the Dave Gosney Gostours ‘Finding Birds in Cyprus’ booklet.
Unfortunately, both of these booklets completely ignore Northern Cyprus, and concentrate only on the Southern (Greek) part of the island. I took these ‘Southern focussed’ guides because I intended to take a couple of trips over the border into the South. For these trips both guides were useful but some of the site information in both publications now needs updating, particularly in relation to birding the Larnaca salt lake area. There is actually a brand new airport, some distance from where the ‘old’ airport is indicated in these guides and the surrounding road system has completely changed as a result. Following signs to Larnaca airport actually now takes you well away from the salt lake area!
Most maps you will buy in the UK are quite useless in Northern Cyprus as they tend to only show the old Greek place names. The Turks have renamed almost everything so you rarely see a Greek place name now in the North. The best map I had was one that came free with Baedeker’s Travel Guide to Cyprus. This showed a lot of Turkish place names and was quite useful. This guide book and map was purchased on e-bay for a couple of pounds. As far as I could establish prior to my trip, there are not yet any chips or SD cards with Cyprus mapping available for most popular Sat Nav systems.
Using Steve Cale’s book as my basic guide to the North, I visited Gecitkoy and Akdeniz Reservoirs and surrounding areas on an almost daily basis. Other than a few Warblers and large numbers of Stonechats, Gecitkoy was barren.
Not a single water bird, wader, gull, or duck was seen on this reservoir on any of my visits, despite there being a healthy water level. Akdeniz was more productive and I had no problems gaining access at the checkpoint. I just showed my binoculars and Collins field guide and the guards let me through. By the end of my trip they were opening the barrier when they saw my car coming and ushering me through each time with a friendly wave.
Beware – Don’t even try to drive the tracks around Gecitkoy or Akedniz Reservoirs in a normal car in the winter months, particularly after it has rained. The rocky parts of the tracks actually get partly washed away in places, and are very muddy in other places. I had the use of a quite capable Suzuki Escudo 4x4 during my stay, but even with low range 4 wheel drive I came close to getting stuck at both of the above sites.
I also went out to Sadrazamkoy village and beyond to Cape Korucam on two occasions. Whilst described as something of a migration hot spot, at this time of year there is a lot of standing water on the fields and the square fresh water pond beside the café at Sadrazamkoy held only Greenfinch, Goldfinch, House Sparrow, and White Wagtail. The only bird species seen on these trips out to the Cape that was not seen elsewhere was a small flock of 6 Linnet on the fields beyond Sadrazamkoy. I also saw the largest flock of (9) Song Thrushes on the Cape, although single Song Thrushes were seen elsewhere.
The family-friendly tourist attractions of Girne Castle and St Hilarion Castle proved very productive for a number of species including Black Redstart. At these locations the birds are clearly more used to people milling around and offer much closer views than those birds I encountered in open countryside.
Most of the locations mentioned in my species list are those mentioned in Steve Cale’s book, or the two above-mentioned guides to Southern Cyprus. However, I found one location in the South near Larnaca that did not seem to be mentioned in any of my birding guide books.
This was an area of wetland and pools right beside the ‘Oups’ Mini Market on the Oroklini Road North East of Larnaca. Despite being close to a main road and not far from an area of new residential housing, these small pools yielded the highest number of wildfowl seen anywhere on the island, plus a small group of black-headed gulls and my only Moorhen of the trip. I scoped the duck and gulls and the general area for over and hour whilst my wife visited the Oups shop, but I saw no herons, waders, or other gull species.
On leaving the area that I subsequently named as ‘Oups Pools’ a male Black Francolin flew straight across the road about 3 yards in front of our car. This was only my second sighting of this elusive species on the trip, and this one was in the middle of the afternoon not far from a built-up area!
The Karpaz Penninsular produced a number of species and in quite large numbers. I would have liked more time in this area, but it was a surprisingly long drive away from Girne and my only visit to Karpaz was a family trip out, so my bird watching had to be fitted in with a bit of sight-seeing. However, even watching from the car at the roadside proved to be productive.
Worthy of particular mention is the area between Dipkarpaz Village and the tip of the Karpaz Penninsular, where the road runs very close to the shoreline. The whole of this area is bordered by cultivated fields and was simply heaving with typical wintering birds, such as White Wagtails, Stonechats, Black Redstarts, Buntings, Larks and several parties of Chukar on the fields.
Along this road, I also had very good views of a stunning adult plumage Finsch’s Wheatear, again close to the road on a stone wall. This bird certainly did not exhibit the flighty and nervous behaviour described by most field guides and seemed oblivious to our presence in a car, affording excellent views for some time. This was my only sighting of this species during my trip.
At dusk as we made our way back from the tip of the peninsular I also had a fine male Black Francolin on a grassy area bordering a field right beside the road. Again, this bird was not at all shy or retiring and I had very close views with binoculars.
There are several beaches located close to this coastal road, the most famous being the large sandy beach favoured by nesting Turtles in the summer. Many of the rocky beaches are accessible by car and these seemed to attract quite a few locals for sea fishing. Many of the smaller beaches were deserted although I am sure this is very different in the summer.
We turned off the main road onto a farm track between two fields that led out to a deserted beach between two large rocky hillocks either side of a small bay. We parked up and ate a picnic lunch on the beach, from where I was delighted to see that one of the rocky outcrops held a splendid Blue Rock Thrush (closest views I have ever had) and numerous Black Redstarts, plus a wide variety of rather large lizards. Unfortunately, as per all other coastal areas visited, the bay and the beach held no gulls or waders and no birds were passing over the sea.
Summary of Birds seen
As Ken Tucker stated in his December 2000 trip report (on birdtours.co.uk), bird watching is VERY difficult in Cyprus in winter. It is very much a case of quality over quantity. Forget all those tales of huge falls of highly visible exotic passerine migrants and raptors in the spring and autumn. In the winter, I found birds very few and far between and when spotted they were mostly very shy and rarely gave good views. You have to work very, very hard to see good birds in Cyprus in the winter.
I dipped out on many species that I assumed would be easy to connect with. Most raptors and waders were absent and I did not see a Starling, but I easily found other potentially more elusive species such as Finsch’s Wheatear, Cyprus Warbler and Black Francolin. In hindsight, if it were not for my being lucky enough to connect with the three latter species, I would say that in birding terms, it was a pretty unproductive trip. Cyprus may well come alive in the spring and autumn, but my experience suggests that in winter it is not a great place for birds at all.
I found that the guide books had built up my expectation of what I might see during my trip far beyond what I actually saw. Remarkably, the coastline and beaches are completely devoid of birdlife. There were no waders or gulls to be seen anywhere along any of the coastal areas visited, other than a solitary Yellow legged Gull flying over the sea at the tip of the Karpaz Penninsular. The only other species of gull seen was Black headed Gull and even these were not common, occurring at only two sites. I even visited a huge rubbish dump near the village of Dikmen but did not see a single gull.
Indeed, during my 2 week visit I saw only 2 species of gull, 1 species of heron, no cormorants, no geese, no sandpipers, and no plovers. The only wader seen during the whole trip was a solitary Redshank viewed at distance with my scope at Akdeniz Reservoir.
There were no huge wintering flocks of thrushes, larks or and buntings on the inland plains and there were certainly no Hen Harriers or Peregrines hunting those species. Flocks of thrushes, larks and buntings tended to number less than double figures in most cases. Raptors were particularly scarce.
On most of our family holidays abroad, family car journeys are often punctuated with frequent stops by the roadside so that I can get a better view of a soaring raptor that has been glimpsed through the windscreen. That did not happen on this trip. Despite stops to scan likely areas, the skys were clear. Indeed, even my non-birding wife commented on the lack of raptors.
Other than Kestrels which are common and the two Marsh Harriers seen at Demirhan Pools, no other raptor species were seen anywhere on the island. This was particularly disappointing as I had hoped that I might at least connect with the resident Bonelli’s Eagles or wintering Griffon Vultures on this trip. Despite a trip to Kensington Cliffs, and journeys into the Kyrenia Mountains and the Troodos Mountains, this was not to be.
The only other place I have ever visited in Europe where bird watching was so difficult was Malta. Apart from a lack of birds, there is one other striking similarity between the two islands which may account for the lack of bird life on Cyprus in winter. On both Malta and Cyprus, many of the areas that look as if they would have great potential for birds are littered with used shotgun cartridges. In Northern Cyprus in the scrub areas surrounding Gecitkoy Reservoir and Demirhan Pools you will find huge numbers of spent shotgun cartridges. Similarly, I even noted spent cartridges in the Troodos Mountains and at other locations in the South.
Like the Maltese, both the Turkish and the Greek Cypriots are passionate hunters and winter is hunting season. On Sundays in particular, you are never far away from the sound of shotguns being fired. This ‘shotgun culture’ may be coincidental to the lack of birds, but sadly, as I found no broken clays where I found the spent shotgun cartridges, I very much doubt it.
There are certainly other European winter holiday destinations where there is far better bird watching to be had. If I go back to any part of Cyprus it will be in the spring or autumn migration periods when I am sure the bird watching would be more exciting. Otherwise, unless you have a pressing need to connect with Finch’s Wheatear, Black Francolin, and Cyprus Warbler, I would suggest that there is no real incentive to go to Northern or Southern Cyprus for a winter bird watching holiday and I would actually advise you to give it a miss and go somewhere else.
Little Grebe Tachybaptus rufficollis
Seen at most inland water sites with the exception of Gecitkoy Reservoir. Largest counts of 11 at Akdeniz Reservoir and 8 at Dimirhan Pools.
Little Egret Egretta garzetta
Single bird feeding on field beside road between Dimirhan village and the pools.
Greater Flamingo Phoenicopterus ruber
Approx 550-600 at Larnaca Salt Lake.
Shelduck Tadorna tadorna
4 at Larnaca Salt Lake, 2 at Oups Pools.
Wigeon Anas penelope
4 at Oups Pools.
Gadwall Anas strepera
1 at Akdeniz Reservoir, 2 at Oups Pools.
Teal Anas Crecca
6 at Akedeniz Reservoir, 14 at Oups pools, 22 at Dimirhan Pools.
Mallard Anas platyrhynchos
2 at Akdeniz Reservoir, 2 at Oups Pools, 6 at Dimirhan Pools.
Pintail Anas acuta
2 at Oups Pools, 1 at Larnaca Salt Lake.
Shoveler Anas clypeata
14 at Oups Pools, 11 at Larnaca Salt Lake, 1 at Demirhan Pools
Marsh Harrier Circus aeruginosus
2 females quartering reeds together at Demirhan Pools.
Kestrel Falco tinnunculus
Common in wide variety of habitats. Seen daily at our villa in Edremit
Chukar Alectoris chukar
Common and widespread, Largest count 18 together on field on Karpas Peninsular
Black Francolin Francolinus francolinus
Single male seen right beside road on Karpas Peninsular at dusk and another male bird flew in front of car across road at Oups Pools near Larnaca in middle of the day.
Water Rail Rallus aquaticus
Heard but not seen at Demirhan Pools
Moorhen Gallinula chloropus
Single at Oups pools Larnaca.
Coot Fulica atra
Common at most wetland sites, even the large reservoirs where other wildfowl were very scarce, with the exception of the barren Gecitkoy Reservoir. Over 100 at Larnaca Salt Lake.
Redshank Tringa totanus
Single at Akdeniz Reservoir.
Black-headed Gull Larus ridibundus
Single at Akdeniz Reservoir, 11 at Oups Pools Larnaca, 22 at Larnaca Salt Lake.
Yellow-legged Gull L.c.michahellis:
Singles at Akdeniz Reservoir and off tip of Karpaz Penninsular.
Rock Dove Columba livia
Common and widespread. Numerous at St Hilarion Castle.
Woodpigeon Columba palumbus
Common in most residential and wooded areas.
Collared Dove Streptopelia decaocta
Common around residential areas.
Turtle Dove Streptopelia turtur
Small numbers and singles seen regularly around residential areas, particularly around villa in Edremit. The presence of this species in winter was a surprise as it is listed as a Passage Migrant or Migrant Breeder in most guides.
Cyprus Scops Owl Otus scops cyprius
Heard frequently around villa in Edremit but not seen.
Little Owl Athene noctua
Seen frequently at dusk around villa at Edremit. 2 together on neighbour’s roof on one occasion. Very vocal around villa at night.
Kingfisher Alcedo atthis
Single at Girne harbour.
Crested Lark Galerida cristata
Common and widespread in all rural areas and on cultivated fields.
Woodlark Lullula arborea
Singles Akdeniz Heath and Akdeniz Forest.
Skylark Alauda arvensis
Common and widespread.
Meadow Pipit Anthus pratensis
Small numbers and single birds seen at several rural sites.
Water Pipit Anthus cervinus
Single at Akdeniz Reservoir.
White Wagtail: Motacilla alba
Common and widespread in all areas.
Wren Troglodytes troglodytes
Single in toilet block car park in Troodos mountains.
Robin Erithacus rubecula
Singles at a wide variety of sites but not common.
Black Redstart Phoenicurus ochuros
Very common, even in urban areas.
Stonechat Saxicola torquata
Very common and widespread in all rural areas and scrub.
Finsch's Wheatear Oenanthe finschii
Single bird Karpaz Penninsular.
Blue Rock Thrush Monticola Solitarius
Single bird Karpas Penninsular.
Blackbird Turdus Merula
Single bird near Edremit village.
Song Thrush Turdus philomelos
Singles around villa in Edremit and other locations, flock of 9 on Cape Korucam.
Cetti's Warbler Cettia cetti
Very common and widespread. Heard more than seen, but showed well near villa in Edremit on several occasions at dusk.
Zitting Cisticola (Fan-tailed Warbler) Cisticola juncidis
Very common in open scrub.
Moustached Warbler Acrocephalus melanopogon
2 seen well at Demirhan Pools.
Spectacled Warbler Sylvia conspicillata
Common around Akedeniz Reservoir and on Akdeniz Heath and in other scrub areas.
Sardinian Warbler Sylvia melanocephala
Common in scrub areas. Singles around villa in Edremit most days.
Cyprus Warbler Sylvia melanothorax
Singles noted around villa in Edremit on 3 occasions, at Gecitkoy and Akdeniz Reservoirs, and 2 on Karpaz Penninsular.
Blackcap Sylvia atricapilla
Singles noted around villa in Edremit and 4 at Demirhan Pools.
Chiffchaff Phylloscopus collybita
Common, especially around villa in Edremit and at Demirhan Pools.
Goldcrest Regulus regulus
Single at toilet block car park in Troodos mountains.
Coal Tit Parus ater cypriotes
2 birds of the endemic race at toilet block car park in Troodos mountains.
Great Tit Parus major aphrodites
Very common and widespread.
Jay Garrulus glandarius glaszneri
Single of the endemic race seen well on drive up to Troodos Mountains.
Magpie Pica pica
Very common and widespread in all habitats.
Jackdaw Corvus monedula
Single bird at Girne Castle.
Hooded Crow Corvus cornix
Very common and widespread in all areas.
House Sparrow Passer domesticus
Common and widespread.
Spanish Sparrow Passer hispaniolensis
Small flocks seen on farmland at Akdeniz village, on Karpaz Penninsular and 2 birds often with House Sparrows near villa in Edremit.
Chaffinch Fringilla coelebs
Singles at a few urban sites. Common at Girne Castle.
Serin Serinus serinus
6 birds with mixed Corn Bunting/Sparrow flock near Akdeniz village. 3 near toilet block car park in Troodos mountains. Singles Karpaz Penninsular and near villa in Edremit.
Greenfinch Carduelis chloris
Common and widespread.
Goldfinch Carduelis carduelis
Common and widespread.
Linnet Carduelis cannabina
Flock of 6 birds on Capre Korucam.
Corn Bunting Miliaria calandra
Common and widespread in rural areas.