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…      

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