Sun, sea, sand and bird­ing – this lovely Greek is­land of­fers it all

Bird Watching (UK) - - Bird The World - WORDS: ED HUTCH­INGS

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.

Wet­land birds

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.

Birds ga­lore

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.


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

Corn Bunt­ing

Mid­dle Spot­ted Wood­pecker

Tem­minck’s Stint

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

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