Sun, sea, sand and birding – this lovely Greek island offers it all
Sun, sea, sand and birding – this lovely Greek island offers lots of wonderful birdwatching opportunities
Lésvos, located in the northeastern Aegean Sea and the third-largest Greek island after Crete and Évvia, is the birthplace of the ancient bards Sappho, Aesop, Arion and – more recently – primitive artist Theophilos and Nobel Laureate poet Odysseus Elytis. Despite these artistic associations, the island may not initially strike one as particularly beautiful or interesting: much of the landscape is rocky, volcanic terrain, encompassing vast grain fields, saltpans or even near desert. But there are also oak and pine forests as well as endless olive groves, some more than five centuries old. With its balmy climate and suggestive contours, Lésvos tends to grow on one with prolonged exposure. Lovers of medieval and Ottoman architecture certainly won’t be disappointed, and castles survive at Mytilíni Town, Mólyvos, Eressós, Sígri and near Ándissa. And then there’s the birds. Everyone arriving by air lands on the eastern peninsula of the island. Many don’t see this side of the island again until they return for their homeward flight. The area of Agiasos lies below Mount Olympus where the Sweet Chestnut woods are full of common songbirds, plus Middle Spotted Woodpecker and Eastern Bonelli’s Warbler. The woods are also home to many rare flowers including orchids. The Dipi Larisos reedbed is at its best in winter, when Pygmy Cormorant can occasionally be seen and there are large roosts of Corn Bunting and Starling. One must drive past the site to and from the airport – it’s always worth popping in if time allows.
The huge Gulf of Kalloni divides the island in two and down its eastern side are several excellent sites. Achladeri Forest is part of the large pinewoods covering much of the centre and south-east of the island. It’s home to another of the island’s major draws, Krüper’s Nuthatch, which is usually found along with breeding Masked Shrike, Long-eared Owl and Short-toed Treecreeper. The Polichnitou Saltpans are much smaller than the Kalloni Saltpans and, because they flood at different times, are better in autumn than in spring (Kalloni are the reverse). However, even in spring they hold many wetland species and the surrounding farmland is great for open country species such as harriers, falcons, larks, pipits and buntings. The town of Kalloni lies right in the middle of the island. Many birders choose to stay at the nearby coastal resort of Skala Kallonis, where many of the sites in the area can be covered on foot or bike if one
wanted to be car-free during your stay. Either side of Skala Kallonis are two important rivers, the Christou to the west and Tsiknias to the east. The Christou is mainly a saltwater and brackish marsh and creek which attracts the usual storks, herons, egrets, waders and coastal grassland species. However, the Tsiknias is one of the larger rivers on the island and a major migration corridor. Its mouth attracts waders, gulls and terns, while egrets, herons and storks occur along its length. The shallow river is excellent for waders, including Temminck’s Stint and terns, including Whiskered and White-winged Black.
The densely vegetated banks throng with Nightingale, warblers and sparrows, including Spanish. Bee-eaters breed in the sandy riverbanks, while swifts and hirundines feed over the river and fields. Harriers, Long-legged Buzzard and other raptors can be seen in the surrounding fields which also attract numerous migrants, including shrikes, Roller, Hoopoe, wagtails, chats, warblers and buntings. The large river valley points north, deep into the island and is used by many species to cross the island north to Turkey, including storks, egrets, herons and raptors. This site also hosts one of the spectacles of late spring, when Rose-coloured Starlings arrive to feed in the mulberries dotted around the region. The nearby Kalloni Saltpans cover a huge area and in spring rates as the top site on the island. The pans themselves attract large numbers of waterfowl, egrets, herons, storks, Greater Flamingo, waders, gulls, terns and other wetland species. After a wet winter, the surrounding fields are dotted with seasonal pools which often concentrate birds and attract other wetland and grassland species including flocks of Glossy Ibis, Ruddy Shelduck, Collared Pratincole, Bee-eater and Red-footed Falcon. One could spend a whole day here and still not cover it. This area probably accounts for more rare bird finds than any other site on the island.
HARRIERS AND OTHER RAPTORS CAN BE SEEN IN THE SURROUNDING FIELDS WHICH ALSO ATTRACT NUMEROUS MIGRANTS
Inland there is Metochi Lake which is a widening of the Christou River. This is the premier site for both Little Bittern and Little Crake, both often found in double figures; Spotted Crake occurs annually and Baillon’s are found most years. It’s also excellent for wetland warblers, including Great Reed, herons, swifts, hirundines and raptors. Other nearby sites include Potamia Valley (raptors and breeding Olive-tree Warbler), the Kalloni Mini Soccer Pitch (Scops Owl), Madaros (Chukar and Rufous-tailed Scrub Robin) and the Kalloni Raptor Watch Point. The large and broad Napi Valley lies east of Kalloni and runs north from the top of the Gulf of Kalloni to the north coast near Mandamados. It’s a major migration corridor, particularly raptors and storks, as well as an excellent spot for many resident and migrant breeders including Middle Spotted Woodpecker, Western Rock Nuthatch, Hoopoe, Masked Shrike and Sombre Tit. It’s also one of the principle sites for Olive-tree Warbler, with the Platania area in particular very reliable for this species.
Breeders and migrants
The northern area between Petra in the west and Mandamados in the east is a productive area for many breeding species and migrants. Rüppell’s Warbler occurs at Kavaki near Petra, also a dependable migrant passerine and raptor site. The north coast track between Efthalou and Skala Sikaminias is excellent for Yelkouan and Scolpoli’s Shearwaters and for passage raptors crossing the narrow straight between the island and Turkey, while migrant passerines can be found in the narrow valleys. The inland roads running east to west to the north and south of Mount Lepetimnos are neglected areas but can be excellent for viewing migrant raptors in spring and autumn. West of Kalloni the undulating olivegrove landscape gives way to rockier, more barren areas. Aghias Taxiarchis is a broad, shallow valley worth checking on your way west to the migrant sites at Sigri and Eresos. The valley holds breeding Olive-tree Warbler as well as many other breeding residents and migrants, and is also excellent for raptors including feeding Eleonora’s Falcon. The Lardia Valley is a deep gorge which holds breeding Crag Martin, Red-rumped Swallow, Blue Rock Thrush and Rock Sparrow. An early morning visit can provide one of the best choruses on the island, which includes Nightingale, Subalpine Warbler, Golden Oriole and Turtle Dove. The barren, volcanic west lies in stark contrast to the softer, greener central and eastern parts of the island. It holds the specialist rocky, open country species, including Western Rock Nuthatch, Isabelline and Wheatears, as well as Cretzschmar’s and the rare Cinereous Bunting – one of the main targets for many visiting birders. Raptors across the area include Long-legged Buzzard, Short-toed Eagle and roaming flocks of mixed falcons, including Lesser Kestrel, as well as Red-footed and Eleonora’s Falcons. In such a barren landscape it’s little wonder that the few areas providing cover act as magnets for both residents and migrants. Ipsilou is the island’s premier migrant passerine site. This conical mount rises steeply from the lowland and its oak covered slopes can drip with migrant warblers and flycatchers – Eastern Bonelli’s Warbler and Collared Flycatcher are recorded annually. The sky can be full of passing raptors, swifts and hirundines. Nearly any migrant can turn up here and so it’s worth spending as much time as one can, even a full day, if you arrive during a big fall. Western Rock Nuthatch, Isabelline and Wheatears and Cretzschmar’s and Cinereous Bunting all breed here, further emphasising the importance of the site. Sigri lies at the very west of the island and is about a 90-minute drive from Kalloni. The farmland to the north up to Faneromeni is famed as a major migrant area and is excellent for Collared Flycatcher, Roller, Lesser Kestrel and Eleonora’s Falcon. The Meladia Valley and its coastal river plain lie along a nine-mile dust track between Sigri and Eresos and has established itself as a worthy migration hotspot. It also holds Western Rock Nuthatch, Wood Lark, Sombre Tit, Cretzschmar’s and Cinereous Buntings. The river ford usually holds water into June and is excellent for Little Bittern and the odd crake, warbler and flycatcher. The surrounding low lying plain holds breeding Rufous-tailed Scrub Robin. Since the early 1990s, Lésvos has established itself as one of the premier birding destinations within the Mediterranean basin. It combines the excitement of migration with several key species which can be otherwise difficult to see elsewhere in Europe. It might not have the large numbers of raptors some other places enjoy, but even raptor passage can be exhilarating. It’s one of Europe’s finest birding sites.
Bird-rich coastal wetlands at the head of the Gulf of Kalloni
Eastern Bonelli’s Warbler
Middle Spotted Woodpecker
View across town of Agiasos nestled below Mount Olympus
Sunrise over the salt tolerant Salicornia marsh vegetation on an estuary near Skala Kallonis
Christou River Estuary
Blue Rock Thrush
Wood Lark perched in bush in late evening sunshine in Napi Valley