Trip Report to Northern Greece and Bulgaria by Sue Bryan
Dec 24th – Dec28th 2017
This holiday was a short break to enjoy Christmas in a setting that John and I both enjoy...that is birdwatching in a foreign land. John had been to Lake Kerkini, in Northern Greece before and I was keen to visit my hundredth country that was just a short drive away crossing the border into Bulgaria. We were lucky to find some winter sun to enjoy the birds that were amassing around the lake.
24th December Stansted – Thessaloniki – Lake Kerkini – Kato Poroia
25th December Lake Kerkini
26th December Promachonas , Greece – Kulata - Rohzen, Bulgaria
27th December Lake Kerkini
International Flights from Stansted with Ryanair to Thessaloniki cost £249 each
We both took a small amount of Euros with us but in fact didn’t use any as we used credit cards for petrol and for paying the hotel bill. As it was Christmas most shops and restaurants were closed anyway.
In December the Mediterranean climate weather was sunny but cold with the temperature hovering around 10 degrees for the larger part of the day. We had ice on the car window first thing in the morning.
There was a good range of habitats in the small area that we decided to cover. The water levels were low in Lake Kerkini, exposing a huge expanse of mud and grassy areas. The water was also suitable for a huge variety of birds, as well as being surrounded by small patches of woodland and arable fields. Had we had more time we may have explored the nearby mountains.
The 4 star Hotel Refanidis www.refanidishotel.gr was a family run hotel a few miles north of the lake in Kato Poroia. We were extremely well looked after and paid a total of £390 for 4 nights that included; evening dinner with wine, bed and breakfast with enough food to make a picnic lunch as well!
John drove through the early hours to reach Stansted airport which was just as well as I had gone down with the ‘lurgy’ sweeping the UK a few days earlier. I was not at my best but was still looking forward to a few days birding in the sun. Our 0645hrs flight landed at Thessaloniki at noon and we were shuttled by a minibus to pick up our small 4x4 Suzuki Jimny.
Pygmy Cormorant and Great Cormorant
John drove to Lake Kerkini where in the early afternoon we were soon watching Pygmy Cormorants that looked so small up against Great Cormorants underneath the dam wall of the lake which is a man-made lake used to store water to provide energy. On the lake Dalmatian Pelicans were in good numbers as we watched a Common Buzzard and a Hen Harrier glide over the lake.
We enjoyed the sun as we watched Hooded Crow, flocks of Corn Bunting, Grey Heron, Yellow-legged Gull, Great Crested Grebe, Siskin and Jay before getting back in the car to see Greater Flamingo a little further along the lakeside along with Pintail, Blue Tit and Teal.
We continued along the western side of the lake driving north towards the village of Kato Poroia and the Hotel Refanidis sitting up on the hillside.
We were greeted by the family and taken to our room before being invited to the Christmas evening meal at 9pm along with all the other guests. By the time we had had a meal along with a few glasses of wine we were exhausted. It had been a very long day!
A knock on the door at 7am revealed Anna, our host bearing a beautiful breakfast tray full of goodies. It was a feast for a king and queen and after devouring as much as we could, we had enough left to make a picnic lunch, which was just as well as all outlets in the local villages were unsurprisingly closed!
After John had de-iced the car he drove to the Lake Kerkini. I spotted a Great Grey Shrike sitting on top of a hedgeline so we stopped to look at it amongst more flocks of Corn Bunting, Goldfinch and Linnet.
Great Grey Shrike
We continued to Mandraki where on the stone jetty on the north shore disaster loomed. I got out my tripod and scope only to discover that I had a leg section missing from my tripod. I had not used it since my return from Uganda a few weeks earlier. Being a good Girl Guide I soon fashioned a temporary leg from a bush and although a bit unstable it did the job of supporting my scope. John meanwhile had located a Greater Spotted Eagle sitting on some dead trees in the lake. Greylag Geese, Common Starling, Skylark, Reed Bunting and Bewick’s Swans were all noted before were heard Common Cranes that flew in and landed within scope distance. After adding Northern Lapwing and Shelduck we moved on to a small piece of woodland down an access road to the lake. Here we had a magical five minutes as a Grey-headed Woodpecker, Lesser Spotted Woodpecker, Syrian Woodpecker and Greater Spotted Woodpecker all arrived with a Nuthatch, Robin, Wren, Dunnock and a small family party of Long-tailed Tits.
Because of weight restrictions imposed by our Ryanair flight I had only taken my small bridge camera which does not lend itself for quick action shots when birds are being difficult in lots of vegetation! So I only managed a photo of the Grey-headed Woodpecker before they all flew off.
John drove to the track-way that leads alongside the River Strimon after noting about a dozen Crested Larks feeding in some hay and straw put out for some cattle.
In some track-wayside bushes we stopped to admire some Tree Sparrows before stopping again to admire the view of the mountains in the sunlight. I spotted some distant raptors overhead and after watching a Marsh Harrier one of the birds flew closer and turned into a Black Stork! At the end of the track a Buffalo farm was a surprise as were the very unfriendly dogs!
We extricated ourselves from the dogs and drove up onto the East Embankment of the lake. Here some isolated pools held a Great White Egret, Greater Flamingo, Mute Swan, Pochard, Spoonbill, Gadwall and Moorhen.
In lakeside bushes after seeing a Great Tit we realised we were looking at a larger finch which revealed itself as a Hawfinch. We were to see several more before we stopped for lunch sitting in glorious sunlight watching some wonderful birds.
Sue sitting at the side of Lake Kerkini for Christmas lunch
Greater Flamingoes from the East Embankment of Lake Kerkini
John was keen to see some geese and after driving for a bit further admiring more Hawfinch we turned around and found 54 Lesser White-fronted Geese as well as a big flock of Eurasian White-fronted Geese. On our return drive we also noted a Green Sandpiper and a Crossbill.
It had certainly been a Christmas day with a difference and we had both enjoyed birding in the sun, finishing the day with a good evening meal and some delicious wine in our warm comfortable hotel waited on by our very attentive hosts.
I was looking forward to this day as one of my life’s dreams was about to be fulfilled. Once again we delighted in a massive breakfast and had more than enough for another picnic lunch too.
John drove to Promachomas via Virona and north along the A25/E79 before turning off east along a minor road, where a small former quarry provided the site for seeing a Black Redstart and Spanish Sparrow as well as more Hawfinch. Further down the road a woodland provided Short-toed Treecreeper, Marsh Tit, Bullfinch and yet more Hawfinch. After consulting our maps we realised that we were going to have to return to the E79 upgraded road (of motorway standard) that wasn’t on our maps giving us little opportunity to stop before arriving at the border with Bulgaria. At Kulata I arrived at my one hundredth country that I have visited as we drove the car through the border controls after being asked to show our passports. I felt a certain amount of emotion as we crossed the border.
We didn’t drive far before taking a side road westwards towards Petric and stopping where we could climb a hillside with some vegetation in search of birds. We noted a Great Spotted Woodpecker, Blue Tit, Great Tit, Starling, Jay, Chaffinch, White Wagtail, Magpie, Grey Heron and a flyover Raven. I heard a call that I was not familiar with and soon realised that two birds were involved. After a search in the bushes a Rock Bunting revealed itself before a Green Woodpecker flew away from me. We reached top of the hill and admired the views.
We made our way back down and noted several Hawfinch sitting in bushes as well as a Hooded Crow. We drove further along the valley and stopped for lunch between Blagoevgrad and Petric watching some of the local transport going by.
During the proceedings I noted a raptor soaring up high soon joined by another. I thought it was a buzzard but was concerned at the wing length. John thought it was worth getting a scope out and had soon identified a Long-legged Buzzard. The other bird was a Common Buzzard. It was nice to have the two birds together for comparison. A Sparrowhawk and a Kestrel flew through as we finished our lunch.
We consulted the map and decided to cross back over the E79 and drive up into the foothills of the snow-covered mountains. We wound our way up the road in the sun and admired the scenery. We drove through mountain villages and encountered some ice on shaded sections of road. We stopped to take a few photos of the village of Karlanovo where a car seemed to have failed to stop at the end of the road! We continued to climb the mountain road and stopped to search a woodland that was absolutely bird-less. We were staggered since the weather was so good.
I was keen to get to the end of the road where we found a small cafe where we sat outside to enjoy the weather and a drink. The waiter took a photo of us that was photo-bombed by a small puppy that rested its paws on our shoulders!
Photo-bombed by a puppy in Karlanovo
After a relaxing time we drove back down the mountain. We stopped to admire more Syrian Woodpeckers, Hawfinches and Great Spotted Woodpeckers.
Sue at Kulata, Bulgaria My hundredth country!
We stopped at the border between Greece and Bulgaria so that I could celebrate my hundredth country. There was a glass of wine or two at the evening meal that evening in our hotel to celebrate!
After another hearty breakfast we drove to Mandraki pier where we added a few new species to our trip list of Christmas day. Curlew, Greenshank, Marsh Sandpiper, Common Snipe and a Kingfisher were all added as well as admiring a Greater Spotted Eagle perched on a stump near the edge of the water, before we drove to our ‘woodpecker’ spot once again. Here we spotted a Goshawk flying over the trees.
We continued along the East Embankment of Lake Kerkini and I had wandered along the track. John was calling me back and as I turned I noticed a Wildcat. I ran back but was too far away to take a photo and the cat too quick before it slunk off into the bushes. However after a short walk admiring more Hawfinch another Wildcat came out of the bushes and at first started walking towards me before it saw me and disappeared once again into the bushes. This time I was facing the right way and managed a few quick photos of it.
Driving along the embankment we stopped to watch the geese again when I noticed a Red-breasted Goose amongst the Eurasian White-fronted Geese and Lesser White-fronted Geese.
Lesser White-fronted Geese
We continued on round the lake and noted a few Black-necked Grebes as we drove along. A Tree containing 50+ Hawfinches was a surprise. We stopped near the dam wall at Lithotopos watching the Dalmatian Pelicans as we ate our lunch.
Lesser White-fronted Geese.
Driving across the dam wall and heading back northwards up the western side of the lake we stopped at a small track 4kms north of the dam wall. After walking up the track into the Marovouini Hills adding Goldcrest to our trip list and nearly back down to the road again I heard a call similar to a Great Tit. However I knew it was the bird that we were looking for as a Sombre Tit faced scolding me in the bush. I called to John who joined me as quickly as he could. The inevitable happened and the bird flew just before he got there. Luckily I relocated it and we both got glimpses of it before it disappeared once again. Sadly it was too quick for a photo.
We continued to the North-western corner of the lake onto the embankment where over 100+ Hawfinch were feeding on the ground and flying up into nearby trees. Later we walked along a farm track where a Black Redstart was sitting on a compound fencepost.
We admired the sunset over the mountains as we drove back to our hotel for the night.
Sunset near Kerkini village
After packing our bags and thanking our hosts we drove along the western side of Lake Kerkini stopping at our site for Sombre Tit. We soon located them before they flew up the hillside. John drove back to Thessaloniki where we left the car at the car depot before being shuttled back to the airport for our flight home.