Wildlife Holiday News

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Dalmatian Pelicans, Lake Kerkini, Greece

What Greece has to offer the Wildlife Enthusiast

Dominic CouzensBy Dominic Couzens
9th September 2019

Dominic is a Naturetrek tour leader and one of Britain's
best known and most prolific natural history writers.

Greece lies in the slow-cooked south-east corner of Europe, simmered for thousands of hot Mediterranean summers and rainy winters into a land of every kind of richness: fertility, antiquity, ingenuity and, perhaps not always appreciated, biodiversity. The land creaks under centuries of unbroken human occupation, and the ancient ruins of past glories sit cheek by jowl with the trappings of a sprawling modern, developed country. One of those past glories was the founding of the science of natural history, primarily by Aristotle in the 4th century BC. Those who wander and contemplate the natural world on the glittering slopes and foothills of this mountainous land are indeed following in gilded footsteps.

Nature is still gloriously here, in eclectic abundance. You might ask what is best and most celebrated in Greece as a wildlife enthusiast, but in fact it is everything. There is a huge diversity of butterflies but also fish, and while birds abound, reptiles do too. The flowers explode twice every year, in spring and again in autumn. You can spend a week just looking for birds, then come again for a butterfly trip in the same place and never get bored.

Despite the political borders, perhaps Greece isn’t quite an entity in itself, more a small mainland nation plus a lot of islands scattered over the Aegean and Ionian Seas. According to the great god Wikipedia there are at least 1,200 islands, and if you combine the coastlines it comes to 13,676km, the 11th longest of any country in the world. From a wildlife-watching perspective, some of these islands are special in their own right. For example, Crete, the largest island, boasts 139 endemic plants found nowhere else in the world. Many other islands have unique elements to their flora, and several islands or archipelagos have endemic Rock Lizards. Although not strictly an island, the Peloponnese peninsula hosts all sorts of endemics, including butterflies, lizards and even its own Slow Worm.

The season gets underway when northern Europe is still shivering. While we in Britain might be relieved to see a few daffodils, Crete, for example, is already awash with blooms. By April the island dazzles with ranks of roadside flowers, such as yellow Crown Daisies and white Turban Buttercups, and Cistus species of as many shades as a paint-box. When the first British orchids dare to emerge above the chilly soil, hesitant as a child putting a hand up to answer an awkward question, a veritable army of orchids of all shapes and sizes crowds the corners of Greek fields and hillsides. There may be 40 species on Crete in April, and 50 on the Pelios peninsula on the central mainland, summer residence of Greek gods and heaven for botanists. Their blooms are like emojis, a Bumblebee there, a Mirror there, fields of Naked Men – hyperbole in flower. Apart from orchids there are also tulips, irises, asphodels, Narcissi, splurges of spurges and stacks of stocks. And this is only Act I; after the broiling summer, there is a second bloom – more on that later.

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Naked Man Orchid, Orchis italica

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Red Cretan Tulip, Tulipa doerfleri (Janet & Stuart Dickenson)

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Crown Daisies, Clebionus coronaria (Janet & Stuart Dickenson)

Spring birds come early to Greece, too; after all, it is but a short haul flight over from Africa. Migrants such as Cuckoos and Nightingales may turn up in late March, and the months of April and May see vast movements of birds throughout the country. The same reasons that made Greece a cultural hub make it a bird migration hub. It lies where Europe meets Asia, hemmed in by huge waterbodies such as the Mediterranean and Black Seas. Greece is on a migratory flyway; in spring and autumn bird travellers pass through in their millions, often on their way to somewhere else, although some migrants, of course, settle to breed alongside the residents in the olive groves, woods and Mediterranean scrub.

In recent years the most famous of Greece’s migration sites has been the island of Lesbos, just off the Turkish coast. Equivalent to the Isles of Scilly closer to home, it is a small land mass with a rich mix of habitats and, in season, you simply cannot tell what will turn up next on the migratory conveyer belt; rarities are, if you like, common. Marshes and wetlands turn up waders, herons, rails and crakes and pelicans; birds of prey such as Red-footed Falcons pass through; the sheer range of small birds, such as warblers, flycatchers, chats and pipits is deliriously bewildering. And typically, as migration often determines, the travellers are mixed together, sometimes disoriented, always distracted; views can be amazing.

Much more recently Samos, to the south, has also proved to be attractive to a wealth of migrant birds. It is a beautiful, mountainous, forested island, smaller and more intimate than Lesbos. Both islands host some of the loveliest birds in the whole of Europe: Bee-eaters, Hoopoes, Rollers (uncommon on Lesbos) and Golden Orioles, as well as Black-headed Buntings and Black-eared Wheatears. All are in their stunning spring finery. Into the mix come such specialities: Kruper’s Nuthatch and Cinereous Bunting on Lesbos, for example, and the more widespread Cretzschmar’s Bunting and Ruppell’s Warbler on both.

Further north, on the mainland, northern Greece also boasts some superb migration stopovers, which similarly also abound with exciting breeding birds. The best is undoubtedly Lake Kerkini, not far from Thessaloniki and just south of the Bulgarian border, a large freshwater wetland with significant colonies of large wading birds such as Night, Purple and Squacco Herons and Spoonbills. The jewels in its crown are two threatened species, the Dalmatian Pelican (which lives here alongside Eurasian White Pelicans) and the Pygmy Cormorant, and there are also Greater Flamingoes and other waterbirds. Although Greece isn’t renowned for its mammals, there are Coypus in this lake, and in the wild countryside around there are Wildcats, Beech Martens, Wild Boar and Chamois. The bat fauna is also impressive, although not very well known.  

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Black-headed Bunting

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Chamois

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Red-footed Falcon

By late spring the countryside warms up considerably. In many parts of Europe, the heat seems to silence everything, but in Greece the babble of bird song is replaced by the louder throb of cicadas. In the same way, the warmth doesn’t diminish the delights for the wildlife enthusiast, either, but turbo-charges them. Diversity breaks out in new directions.

Not many people travel to Greece specifically for its ‘herps’ – reptiles and amphibians – but they are a fascinating and lively addition to the wildlife that people notice here. Lizards, skinks and geckos scuttle everywhere, even around apartments and tavernas; indeed, they bask on ruins as their forebears have for hundreds of years, joining the lively Rock Nuthatches. Greece is also home to all three species of European tortoise, Hermann’s, Spur-thighed and Marginated, which wander unhurriedly over the rocky, shrubby slopes. Snakes are also common, and more diverse in Greece than anywhere else in Europe, although rarely seen. Their abundance is reflected in how easy it is to see the Short-toed Eagle, their sworn enemy. In places such as the magnificent Dadia Forest, in the north, many of the 20 species of breeding raptors eat snakes and other herps, particularly lizards. Levant Sparrowhawk, Long-legged Buzzard, Lesser Kestrel and Booted Eagle are among these.

Summer also brings out the full range of insects. Besides cicadas, Greece abounds with moths, grasshoppers (some very rare), dragonflies and, of course, butterflies. You can spend a dedicated butterfly week in June and see nearly 100 species of blues, whites, hairstreaks, fritillaries, skippers and browns, especially around the peaks of Chelmos, on the northern Peloponnese and Mount Parnassos on the other side of the Gulf of Corinth. The former has its own endemic butterfly, the Chelmos Blue, and there are many other endemics or specialities. The great advantage of mountains such as these – Mount Parnassos reaches to 2,457m – is that the variation in altitude produces a wide habitat range and, consequently, many species flying at the same time. You can see 50 species in a day, of every colour, size and character, from the huge, gaudy Two-tailed Pasha to Europe’s smallest butterfly, the Grass Jewel. This being Greece, of course, you can mix your butterflies with your culture. The world-famous ruins of Delphi lie on Mount Parnassos, which means that you can see a Clouded Apollo and the Temple of Apollo almost at the same time!

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Clouded Apollo

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Short-toed Eagle

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Ruins of Delphi

Again, this being Greece, the butterflies steal attention from the birds, which steal attention from the flowers, and so on. Greece is a perfect setting for a general natural history trip, as well as more specific ones.

Greece simmers until September, when the shorter days herald a great change, especially among birds. Once again, certain places fill up with the birds of many nationalities that have bred further north. The autumn migration is slower but lasts longer. Once again, Lesbos witnesses impressive migration, as does Lake Kerkini and, to the east by the Turkish border, the Evros Delta. The latter is fabulous for waders, including those such as Broad-billed and Marsh Sandpiper which are less common in Western Europe. The rare Spur-winged Plover also occurs here, along with a host of gulls, terns and other waterbirds.

As mentioned above, the treats for the wildlife enthusiast don’t end there, because in Greece there is a second flowering peak during the autumn rains, which can be seen both on Crete and on the mainland, for example on the Peloponnese. Indeed, the latter is the only place in Europe where cyclamens, crocuses and snowdrops flower at the same time, the latter being Galanthus reginae-olgae. Many of these are bulb plants, but many others occur, too, especially Asteraceae, along with the autumnal crop of berries. On Crete there is also a late flowering Narcissus. The colour is undiminished and, after a day of botanising in October or November, it can feel as though the summer never left.

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Greater-spotted Eagle

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Autumn Narcissus, Narcissus serotinus

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Greater Flamingoes

As autumn gives way to winter, some birds still arrive to spend the colder months in a region that never really shivers. Up at Lake Kerkini some VIPs arrive, such as Greater Spotted Eagles, Imperial Eagles and even a smattering of winter geese and swans, the former including the very rare Lesser White-fronted Goose. A host of ducks haunts this marvellous site throughout the winter, along with the pelicans and flamingoes. Even on the shortest days, this and many other sites brim with birds.

As the year finishes and the days once again begin to lengthen, the woods soon resound with bird song. Sombre Tits are soon in good voice and a fabulous range of woodpeckers start to drum, especially in the vast poplar forests on the Bulgarian border. It is but weeks away until spring takes over once again, the inevitable passage of time in an ancient land.

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