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.

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