Friday, September 27, 2013

Birding along the Egnatia route – Part 1

The shortest way across northern Greece, in order to get to Turkey, was along the Egnatia highway. I naturally took the old road as the new highway is closed to cyclists; besides, older roads have less traffic making birding easier while on the go. The first three days saw me taking to the mountain passes from Parapotamos to Metsovo, some of which I thought would never end! The only reprise from the grueling cycling was the fantastic scenery and sight and sound of birds. The distinctive call of European Bee-eaters comes to mind first, followed by that of Eurasian Golden Oriole, Eurasian Turtle Dove, Cirl Bunting, Common Cuckoo, Chaffinch, and Common Nightingale. I was pleased to still see stunning Subalpine Warblers from time to time, while Grey Wagtails were seen along clear-water streams in the bottom of the valleys. Red-rumped Swallows, Black-eared Wheatears, Short-toed Eagles, and Crag Martins also made regular appearances. A single Eurasian Honey Buzzard made a fleeting pass by. It was just past the small town of Soulopoulo where i stopped to take a break at a roadside cafe, and was offered a Greek salad and huge omelette for lunch, courtesy of the owner!

A magnificent mountain pass in north western Greece.

A Red-rumped Swallow showing the distinctive blue cap and black vent.

On the mountain plateau at Metsovo, before the big descent down to Grevena, the alpine grasslands held Northern Wheatear, Stonechat, and Eurasian Serin. Some expected surprises where Tree Pipit, Rufous-tailed Rock Thrush, Skylark and Woodlark. Some stops on the way down the wooded valleys revealed Chiffchaff, Great Spotted Woodpecker, and Rock Bunting. After some fantastic winding downhills I arrived in a completely different world, where the mountains where replaced by rolling wheat fields. The bird fauna was also different, with species such as Corn Bunting, Crested Lark, Black-headed Bunting, Lesser Grey Shrike and Tree Sparrow being obvious. I also saw my first European Roller, which I had been expecting to see sooner or later.

On the mountain plateau near Metsovo, north western Greece.
A male Rock Bunting, a striking bird indeed.

Passing through bear country on the way down from Metsovo.

A sign to a paleontological centre at the small town of Milia drew my attention as I cycled by. It was already quite late but I figured I would just have a look to see the opening times, before finding a camp site nearby. I asked a group of gentlemen sitting outside a cafe when the centre would open the next day. Without getting an answer, I was given a chair and requested to wait a while. Not quite sure what was going to happen, I took the seat but was anxious about getting a camping spot before it got too dark. A short while later a gentleman arrived wearing a jacket and tie, and I recognised the emblem of the centre on a badge he worn. The curator of the centre had been called out specifically to open the centre for me! I was stunned. It was now nearly dark when the curator and a translator led me to the centre where I could behold the world’s longest mastodon tusk ever discovered. The tusk measures 5.02 metres and was excavated locally in 2007, and has a Guinness World Record certificate. Mastodons were the prehistoric ancestors of the elephant, and roamed Europe, Asia and North America around 5 million years ago. After viewing the tusk and other fossils on display, I was offered a spot to sleep in the nearby building which was being renovated to replace the old centre – so that took care of my sleeping arrangements!

The Curator and friend, who translated for me, at the paleontological centre in Milia.
The world's longest mastodon tusk at 5.02 metres.

Camping in the 'future' paleontological centre in Milia.

I crossed miles of more wheat fields before crossing another mountain range, where I managed to get some species I had not seen for a while, such as Linnet, Nuthatch and a family group of Sombre Tits. Back into the wheat fields, I saw White Stork, Spanish Sparrow, Little Owl and my first Gull-billed Terns. It was quite a moment when I recognised the terns foraging above some fields in the company of Mediterranean Gulls. Their bills really do look like that of gulls, being far stouter than that of other similar-sized tern species. With the sun setting and having taken a road that led to a highway, I had to make a detour to get to my next milestone, the city of Thessaloniki. I ended up camping amongst dense weeds, tall enough to hide my tent, next to a back road outside the town of Alexandria. It was not a campsite with a view! At least a nearby resident Cetti’s Warbler added a touch of style.

Next morning I by chance heard about the ancient city of Pella, the birth place of Alexander the Great. Only a five kilometre detour, I was happy to make the trip to see the city for myself. While passing through the modern town of Pella, I met a group of five English cyclists. After exchanging travel stories for some time, we decided to camp together on the local sports field. While preparing dinner, some lads arrived with a football. After answering many questions, we were invited to join them for a game of football; the cyclists against the local lads. We had not played long, and after a score of one all, a loud and threatening thunderstorm sent us back to the pavilion for cover. The game was over and us older lads were somewhat relieved that our reputations had been saved by the storm.

The English cyclists left for Thessaloniki while I went on to visit the ancient city of Pella. Though now mostly reduced to its foundations after an earthquake and several hundred years of existence, it is still quite something to behold. The pebble-mosaic floors and pavings in particular, are impressive, and depict various scenes such as hunts and battles. One gets a real ethereal feeling when walking through the city, trying to imagine what it must have been like back in its day. After the cultural experience it was time to head on to Thessaloniki and beyond.

Pebble pavings at the ancient city of Pella, Greece.

A deer-hunt mosaic at the ancient city of Pella, Greece.

Between Thessaloniki and Asprovalta I passed two large shallow lakes. While birding was near impossible from the road, I managed to find a track that led to the shore of one of the lakes. This gave me views of my first White Pelicans for Europe. Other species present included a few Dalmatian Pelicans, Great Crested Grebes, Great Cormorants, and Pygmy Cormorants, with Squacco Herons and Little Egrets along the shores. I passed on through the spectacularly wooded Rentina Gorge before reaching the coastal town of Asprovalta. Here I camped for two nights, with a view of the sea and a very conspicuous Common Nightingale for a camping companion. Syrian Woodpeckers were frequently heard calling while Spotted Flycatchers hunted unobtrusively for insects. 

European Goldfinch is a stunning species seen almost everywhere

The early evenings saw me scanning the skies above Asprovalta for Eleonora’s Falcon, which are reputed to hunt over the town at dusk, but to no avail. On my last morning I took to the sea to experience the warm Mediterranean waters one more time, before taking to the road again. I was only a few kilometres from Asprovalta, when I saw what I believed to be an Eleonora’s Falcon. Though the light was not ideal, I was pretty sure I could see the key identification features. But before I could reach for my camera to get the best proof possible, the bird took off from its pylon perch and disappeared over a ridge. A frantic search for the bird was unsuccessful, and I was left thinking of what could have been as I cycled east. What I didn’t know at the time was that some great birding still awaited me in north eastern Greece…      

Thursday, September 19, 2013

On a Greek island

I took the ferry from Sarandë in Albania to Corfu Island on the northwest coast of Greece. I had read some bird trip reports from previous visits to Corfu so was looking forward to discovering the birdlife for myself. From the ferry I could see Cory’s Shearwaters passing by at a distance, but the fairly intense engine vibrations made it impossible to see anything clearly through binoculars! The ferry docked at Corfu town, where I briefly visited the Old Town area before beginning my search for a campsite. My first destination was to the north of the island around the towns of Roda and Sidari. While climbing a hill on the way, an adult Short-toed Eagle showed well as it soared overhead; giving me my best views to date. 
Houses by the roadside in a typical village on Corfu Island.

Being a popular tourist destination, Roda and Sidari were humming with foreign sun-seekers. After taking in some of the coastal scenery, I was happy to leave the crowds behind as I took to the roads again. A Zitting Cisticola calling over a small patch of tall grassland drew my attention; I know the call well from South Africa but somehow these European birds call differently, but unmistakable nevertheless. Other species I am familiar with in Africa also made an appearance, such as Lesser Grey Shrike, Spotted Flycatcher, Eurasian Golden Oriole, Alpine Swift and an Olive Tree Warbler. The latter is a particularly nice bird to get in Europe, so I was pleased with the good views. 

Coastal view at Sidari, Corfu Island.

From the north of Corfu I decided to explore the west coast, which I heard was arguably more scenic than the east coast. I switched between main roads and back roads through the north western part of the island, trying to keep the sea in view for as long as possible. I was always hopeful of seeing an Eleonora’s Falcon flying by, considering the presence of numerous steep cliffs. The rugged west coast also guaranteed a good number of hills, though fortunately most of these were short climbs. Hills that reached higher altitude ensured a blend of warblers, including Sardinian, Subalpine and Eastern Orphean Warbler. Blue Rock Thrush and Woodchat Shrikes where common, the former often seen perched on roadside boulders and buildings. 

A Sardinian Warbler, with characteristic black cap, white throat and red eye-ring.
View over an old fort on Corfu's west coast. A Blue Rock Thrush perched on the walls.
A White Wagtail, a common European species, was abundant on Corfu.

View over Paleokastritsa and the west coast of Corfu.

The next town on my route was Paleokastritsa, the largest of the towns on the west coast and surrounded by impressive cliffs which seemed ideal for raptors. However, despite my two-day stay there, I did not spot anything more exciting than Common Buzzards and the odd Common Kestrel. House Martins and Barn Swallows were common in town and I figured they must have been busy raising their second brood of young. European Turtle Doves called regularly throughout the day while Eurasian Scops Owls took the night shift.
A thunderstorm approaching Paleokastritsa with speed.

Impressive cliffs at Paleokastritsa, enveloped by a thunderstorm.

A spectacular thunderstorm hit Paleokastritsa on the second morning I was there, complete with a couple of small whirlwinds offshore and hard rain; most unusual for that time of year according to a local. After the weather settled, Alpine Swifts took to the sky and circled above the Theotokos Monastery atop a sheer hillside. Stilling longing to see an Eleonora’s Falcon, I took to the road again to visit a highly recommended birding site on Corfu, the fertile Ropa valley. Although a mosaic of agricultural fields, the Ropa valley has good birding potential. I followed the stream that traverses the valley, picking up species such as Spanish Sparrow, Common Pheasant, Corn Bunting, Stonechat, Lesser Grey Shrike, Yellow Wagtail, Common Nightingale and my first Cetti’s Warbler. I had heard the characteristic call before but the species had remained elusive until now. An interesting warbler with a very distinctive jizz, cocking its tail as it skulks through the dense undergrowth. Though not shy to show itself from time to time, I was still not able to get a photograph. After enjoying good views through the dense shrubbery, I turned to photographing a Barn Swallow and Stonechat instead.

Barn Swallow in the Ropa Valley, Corfu Island.

Exploring the Ropa Valley.
A male Stonechat in the Ropa Valley.

After Ropa I passed through some spectacular scenery on the way to Lake Korission on the southwest coast. Red-rumped Swallow, Golden Oriole, Common Swift, Eurasian Wryneck, European Goldfinch, Grey Wagtail, Eurasian Hoopoe, and European Serin were some of the species seen. By the time I reached the lake the midday heat had set in with the birds taking a siesta. Zitting Cisticola’s performing their bouncy aerial display over a grassland provided a distraction, as did the student kitesurfers training along the beach. The open waters of the lake did not deliver much with a feather, other than the odd Little Egret and Grey Heron. Kentish Plovers and Black-winged Stilts patrolled the salt encrusted shores, while the sandy dunes between the beach and lake seemed to be the domain of Crested Larks. The tall scrub between the lake and beach held numerous calling Olivaceous Warblers.

Kitesurfers training near Lake Korission, Corfu.

Anxious to move on to mainland Greece, I cycled across Corfu to the east coast, and found a nice camp spot in an olive grove. What surprised me the most about Corfu was the astonishing number of large olive trees, which literally covered most of the landscape – apparently there are 3 million olive trees on the 588 km2 island! Next morning I headed for the Lefkimmi saltpans to the south of the island, passing through some spectacular woodland between Lefkimmi town and the saltpans. Though nothing unusual was seen along the way, I did see my second Olive-tree Warbler. At the environmental education centre at the saltpans, I met Giannes and his colleagues, and got chatting for the first time in days. Before departing to explore the salt flats, Giannes generously stocked my pannier with sandwich rolls for the road - they did not last long!

So that's what a beach on a Greek island looks like; have always wondered.

Since it was not migration time, the saltpans were less production than otherwise, similarly to Lake Korission. While Kentish Plovers, Black-winged Stilts and Little Egret were no surprises, I was pleased to behold my first Greater Flamingos for Europe. A flock of six birds stood in the shallow waters, with their heads tucked under the wings for most of the time. A few Common Shelduck were also in attendance and Little Terns were actively flying back and forth carrying tiny fish in their black-tipped yellow bills. 

A boat getting a coat on Corfu.

I caught the afternoon ferry for Igoumenitsa on the mainland, and bid farewell to the Greek island. Hopeful that I would see some pelagic species from the boat, I scanned the sea for shearwaters. However, the calm conditions were not conducive to seabird viewing, with only the odd Yellow-legged Gull passing by. I celebrated my arrival on mainland Greece with a refreshing swim in the clear and warm Mediterranean water, before rolling on into the interior.

Wednesday, September 4, 2013

All smiles in Albania

One thing is for sure, Albanians are friendly people! When I arrived in the country and cycled into the first village, I was overwhelmed by the smiles and waves from the locals. Children in the streets wanted nothing more than to give me a ‘high-five’ as I passed by, so I quickly had to learn to keep my balance while holding out my hand. Kids with bikes were always keen to tag along for a while, asking loads of questions which I unfortunately could not understand due to the language barrier. In a nutshell, Albanians seem very happy to see foreigners visiting their country.

Welcome to Albania, from the students of Vitrina University!

There were not many birding sites I had planned to visit in Albania; I was more interested in taking in the atmosphere and so had not decided on any particular route. An unexpected Olivaceous Warbler in an orchard near Lezhë was a pleasant surprise though! On my second day I ended up in the capital Tirana. It was late in the afternoon and still had no place to stay. After passing the umpteenth hotel in the hope of reaching the end of the city to wild camp, I eventually opted to ask about the price of a room. A local gentleman visiting the hotel kindly offered to go halves on the price of the room, which I thought was very generous considering we were complete strangers. He then paid the full price of the room while four friends who were playing a card game in the hotel dining lounge organised me a pizza for dinner! I was sorted! This occasion certainly left a lasting impression on me. 

An old house overlooking agricultural fields in Albania.

One site I was keen on visiting was Karavasta Lagoon. After having cycled the highway from Tirana to the coast, I took a secondary road to approach the lagoon from the north. Along the way I got my first Little Owl, perched on the gutter of a house beside the road. Being diurnal, they will happily perch in the open during the day making them quite easy to spot, unlike other owls. After taking a wrong turn, I ended up on a dead end road to the village of Spille. After getting some advice from the locals on the road to Karavasta, I drew the attention of some boys who were keen to chat. After rattling off in their mother tongue for quite some time, they used sign language to warn me about the dogs by the roadside. After trying to indicate to them that this would not be a problem, they insisted on following me out of the village and kept the dogs at bay while I cycle down the road – I thought to myself, where else would kids do something like that for a stranger?   

The lads from Spille who kept the dogs at bay!

At Karavasta I headed for the beach first, and very soon saw my first Dalmatian Pelicans fishing in the shallows between the beach and a sand spit. These are impressive birds, being somewhat larger than White Pelicans and with characteristic white underwings seen in flight. The beach also produced another lifer, namely Greater Short-toed Lark, which appeared to be breeding in the area. A few Kentish Plovers were also present. Common Terns were flying back and forth just behind the surf while a family of Oystercatchers rested on the sand spit. After chatting to some friendly locals who were busy rigging their beach bar for the tourist season, I headed southwards along the shore of the lagoon. There was a large number of Dalmatian Pelicans resting on the lagoon, but were too far off to see well. Yellow Wagtails were common amongst the salt marsh vegetation and Little Terns were feeding over the waters. A single Grey Plover rested amongst some Black-winged Stilts that were foraging in the shallows. Towards the south end of the lagoon I was rewarded with four Stone Curlews, another species for the life list. With the sun setting quickly I hastily passed through some old fields and was pleased to find a second lark lifer for the day, namely Calandra Lark. These were clearly larger than the Greater Short-toed Larks and had characteristically dark underwings. A male Montagu’s Harrier made a spectacular appearance just before the sun set. With the sun down I made a desperate yet successful attempt to wild camp amongst some agricultural fields.

On the beach in Albania.

A Yellow Wagtail about to take off.

Karavasta Lagoon in Albania.

Although the next day’s birding was uneventful as I headed for the city of Vlorë, I still enjoyed the usual roadside birds. Great Reed Warblers were calling from every canal, Crested Larks often flew up from the road verge while Woodchat Shrikes and Black-headed Buntings were perched on wires. Corn Buntings were heard from the agricultural fields. As evening drew near, I decided to tackle a steep hill near Dukat. There were few hairpin bents with most of the road running perpendicular to the contours! Near the top I was called to a halt by a very enthusiastic boy, who had clearly seen me approaching from a distance. His name was Ronaldo and he ardently insisted that I spend the night at his place. Not sure that I was going to find a spot to camp higher up, I accepted his offer. Ronaldo’s English was good for an Albanian kid, so we were able to chat without any major hitches. He served me numerous glasses of warmed milk and sugar, one after the other, and then it was dinner with his family; a huge bowl of soured milk served with cheese, fried salami and olives on the side. This went down well!

Camping at Ronaldo's.

I pitched my tent close to the family’s cow and had a good night’s rest. The next morning I was hoping to get a photo with my new Albanian friend, but Ronaldo suddenly had to dash to catch the school bus. I took to the road again; it was still a climb to the top above Dukat village, but followed by an incredible downhill. After the downhill I realised that Albania had saved its toughest for last. It was nearly a 100 km ride to Sarandë where I planned to catch a ferry to a Greek island, and I had not counted on the hills. But I was not the only one who had to push hard on the pedals that day; Anton from Belgium was not far behind me so we took to the hills together. This helped us get over some more steep climbs until I decided to let Anton go ahead, as he was rushing to catch a boat back to Italy the next day. 

Forest above Dukat village.

What a great downhill, after reaching the top above Dukat village.

Anton taking the lead on the downhill.

With the gradients becoming easier towards Sarandë, I started to look at birds once again. Blue Rock Thrush, Cirl and Black-headed Bunting, Sardinian Warbler, Black-eared Wheatear, Crag Martin, Tawny Pipit, Alpine Swift and Raven all made appearances along the scenic route. I also heard a covey of Rock Partridges, which I had also heard before in Croatia, but again did not see them. Little did I know that this would be the last time that I would encounter this species, so despite having heard it several times I have still not seen it!
An Albanian bee-keeper tending to his hives.

A male Black-eared Wheatear.

At Sarandë I enjoyed a superb Albanian pastry for the last time before boarding the ferry to Corfu Island in Greece. Albania was certainly a great ride and I would not hesitate to return. The friendliness of the people and scenic wilderness are reasons enough to go and explore this untamed country.  

Scenic hillscape along the coast of southern Albania.