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