Colour­ful Corfu

Cur­rently the set­ting for a pop­u­lar ITV show, this Greek is­land of­fers sun, sea and sand and fan­tas­tic bird­ing!

Bird Watching (UK) - - Contents - Words & pho­tog­ra­phy: Ed Hutch­ings

So many great birds to en­joy on the sun-kissed is­land of Corfu, in Greece

Like many school­boys in­ter­ested in wildlife, I was weaned on the nat­u­ral­ist Gerald Dur­rell’s three well-loved books about his 1935–1940 child­hood on Corfu: My Fam­ily and Other An­i­mals, Birds, Beasts and Rel­a­tives and The Gar­den of the Gods. Thirty years ago, a BBC TV se­ries se­ri­alised the for­mer and, more re­cently, the ITV se­ries The Dur­rells has brought the is­land back into vogue. Corfu, or Kerkyra, is the sec­ond largest of the Io­nian Is­lands, and, in­clud­ing its small satel­lite is­lands, forms the north­west­ern­most part of Greece. The north­east­ern edge of the is­land lies off the Al­ba­nian coast, and the south-east side of the is­land lies off the Greek main­land. Its shape re­sem­bles a sickle, to which it was com­pared by the an­cients: the con­cave side, with the city and har­bour of Corfu in the cen­tre, lies to­ward the coast of Al­ba­nia. Corfu is thought to have been the model for Pros­pero and Mi­randa’s place of ex­ile in Shake­speare’s The Tem­pest, and was cer­tainly known to writ­ers such as Spenser, Mil­ton and – more re­cently – Ed­ward Lear and Henry Miller, as well as Gerald and Lawrence Dur­rell. Lawrence Dur­rell’s Pros­pero’s Cell evokes the is­land’s “de­lec­ta­ble land­scape”still ev­i­dent in some of its beaches, the best of the whole archipelago. Dan­gling be­tween the heel of Italy and the west coast of main­land Greece, green, moun­tain­ous Corfu was one of the first Greek is­lands to at­tract mass tourism in the 1960s. In­dis­crim­i­nate ex­ploita­tion turned parts into eye­sores, but a sur­pris­ing amount of the is­land still con­sists of olive groves, moun­tains or wood­land. Most pack­age hol­i­days are based in the most de­vel­oped re­sorts and un­spoilt ter­rain is of­ten only a few min­utes’ walk away. With the is­land’s area es­ti­mated at 146,500 acres, it is about 40 miles long, with its great­est breadth at 20 miles. Two high and well-de­fined ranges di­vide the is­land into three districts, of which the north­ern is moun­tain­ous, the cen­tral un­du­lat­ing and the south­ern low-ly­ing. The more im­por­tant of the two ranges, that of Pan­tokra­tor (Tsouka and Krat­salo) stretches east and west from Erim­i­tis to An­gelokas­tro, and at­tains its great­est el­e­va­tion in the sum­mit of the same name. The sec­ond range cul­mi­nates in the moun­tain of Agioi Deka. The whole is­land, com­posed as it is of var­i­ous lime­stone for­ma­tions, presents great di­ver­sity of sur­face and views from more el­e­vated spots are mag­nif­i­cent. Corfu’s cel­e­brated coast­line spans 135 miles, in­clud­ing var­i­ous capes. Corfu is one of the green­est of all the Greek is­lands. The is­land, which rises to over 900m at Pan­tokra­tor in the north but is pre­dom­i­nately low-ly­ing, re­ceives more rain­fall than most of the main­land, hence its la­goons, maquis, mead­ows and woods are rel­a­tively lush. The an­cient Greek poet Homer iden­ti­fies six plants that

adorn the gar­den of Al­ci­nous: ap­ple, fig, grapevine, olive, pear and pome­gran­ate. Of these, the ap­ple and the pear are some­what in­fe­rior in Corfu. The re­main­der thrive, to­gether with all the fruit trees known in south­ern Europe, with the ad­di­tion of kumquat, lo­quat and prickly pear and, in some ar­eas, banana. When undis­turbed by agri­cul­ture, ar­bu­tus, bay, Holm Oak and Myrtle form a rich brush­wood, along with fir and Tur­key Oak in the hills. Corfu is also renowned for its wild­flow­ers, and the is­land is a riot of colour in the spring. Corfu has a rich avi­fauna ow­ing to its ver­dancy, its mild year-round cli­mate and its nu­mer­ous la­goons. Sadly, as on so many Mediter­ranean is­lands, birds must run the gaunt­let of hunters. Shot­gun car­tridges are widely scat­tered in de­press­ing abun­dance, as are empty plas­tic water bot­tles. Nev­er­the­less, about 300 bird species have been recorded. High el­e­va­tions and wet­lands are the most pro­duc­tive places to ex­plore, but fields, or­chards and scrub do hold birds if one is pa­tient and quiet.

Mixed colonies

Ar­riv­ing by plane, the first wet­land one will see is ad­ja­cent to the air­port it­self – the Cha­likiopoulou la­goon; this is sea­wa­ter, but it has sev­eral fresh­wa­ter streams that trickle into it al­most year-round, mak­ing it a most di­verse habi­tat for wildlife. The site be­longs to the Natura 2000 net­work and there is a decade-long hunt­ing ban cur­rently in place. There is a larger la­goon, Koris­sion, in the south-west and a smaller one, An­tin­i­oti, in the north-east, but the great­est mag­net for birdlife is the re­dun­dant salt­pans at Alikes Le­fkimis. The World Her­itage Site of Corfu Town it­self is home to mas­sive mixed colonies of Alpine Swift and Swift, while Mediter­ranean Gull is of­ten found in the har­bour. Eurasian Scops Owl and Red-rumped Swal­low are com­mon in some vil­lages and Lan­ner Fal­con is some­times seen on the cliffs in the area of Pa­le­okas­tritsa. Short-toed and Crested Larks, Tawny Pipit, Lesser Grey and Wood­chat Shrikes, and Sar­dinian, East­ern Subalpine and East­ern Or­phean War­blers are fre­quent in

scrub and farm­land. Up­land birds found in the Pan­tokra­toras area in­clude Chukar Par­tridge and rap­tors, both rock thrushes, Black Red­start, Black-eared Wheatear, Western Rock Nuthatch and buntings such as Cirl, Or­tolan and Black-headed. On Corfu’s north­ern tip is sit­u­ated An­tin­i­oti La­goon, where var­i­ous herons and waders oc­cur on pas­sage, along with breed­ing Olive-tree War­bler. The other fa­mous wet­land on Corfu, Lake Koris­sion, lies in the south of the is­land and at­tracts pas­sage birds, such as Glossy Ibis, Fer­rug­i­nous Duck and var­i­ous terns. Fur­ther south are the

salt­pans at Alikes Le­fkimis, which are also worth check­ing for mi­grants, par­tic­u­larly Col­lared Prat­in­cole, which may also breed. This is also a good site for waders, terns in­clud­ing Whiskered and Black, and herons, in­clud­ing Pur­ple, Squacco and Spoon­bill. The sur­round­ing area is good for Tawny Pipit, too.

Not just great birds

Spring is usu­ally the most pro­duc­tive pe­riod on Corfu, and mi­grants can be seen through­out the is­land. Red-footed and Eleonora’s Fal­cons, Gull-billed, Caspian, Whiskered and White-winged Terns and passer­ines in­clud­ing Col­lared and Semi-col­lared Fly­catch­ers are reg­u­lar. Scopoli’s and Yelk­ouan Shear­wa­ters can be seen on boat trips to neigh­bour­ing is­lands. As well as birds, there is a plethora of other wildlife to en­joy on Corfu. Look out for rep­tiles, in­clud­ing Her­mann’s Tor­toise and Nose-horned Viper, though the lat­ter should be treated with cau­tion. The rich flora in­cludes at least 44 or­chids (best from late March to early April). But­ter­flies are nu­mer­ous and wide­spread, in­clud­ing the amaz­ing Two-tailed Pasha, of­ten to be found on straw­berry trees. As well as be­ing a top Euro­pean hol­i­day des­ti­na­tion, Corfu still holds in­ter­est­ing wildlife in­clud­ing, of course, birds. A beau­ti­ful mo­saic of de­cid­u­ous forests, olive groves, maquis, moun­tains, wet­lands, salt­marshes and the Io­nian Sea it­self, com­bined with more ur­ban land­scapes, pro­vide a wide va­ri­ety of habi­tats suit­able for dif­fer­ent species. Corfu may have more pack­age hol­i­day re­sorts than any other Greek is­land, but it is still an ex­cel­lent des­ti­na­tion for a cheap but ex­cit­ing bird­ing trip, thanks to the pres­ence of in­ter­est­ing res­i­dent species, sum­mer visi­tors and a wide range of spring pas­sage mi­grants. Just don’t for­get your copy of My Fam­ily and Other An­i­mals.

The view over Lake Koris­sion from Pan­tokra­toras Monastery

A reser­voir near Kavos on the south­ern tip of the is­land

A siege of Grey Herons on Lake Koris­sion

An­other great view over Lake Koris­sion from Pan­tokra­toras Monastery

Blue-throated Keeled Lizard

Two-tailed Pasha

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