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WINGS Birding Tours – Narrative

Greece: Lesvos

Spring Migration Through the Aegean

2014 Tour Narrative

Looking back at previous Sunbird tour reports for Lesvos I am struck by the opening line of the very first tour, which took place in April 2000. It reads “This is the first time Sunbird has run a tour to Lesvos, but if this years’ experience is anything to go by, it will not be the last” Fourteen years on I can honestly say I look forward to visiting this wonderful island at least as much now as I did back then. I can think of nowhere else in Europe that consistently delivers such a rich and diverse range of exciting spring migrant birds, as well as host a few very special resident species, most of which are found in unspoiled and beautiful habitats, often further enhanced by the colour of wild flora at its spring zenith. It is no wonder that so many birders from all over Europe are hooked on visiting this island for a ‘fix’ of spring birding at its best, and the friendships that have developed with many of them as well as everyone’s willingness to share the news of their finds further enhance the sheer magic of Lesvos.

The really great thing about birding on Lesvos is that there is such an abundance of birds it is usually not too difficult to get good views of most species. Even notorious skulkers such as Common Nightingale and Cetti’s Warbler eventually ‘give themselves up’ to our telescopes, often when we are actually intent on seeing something else!

With migration being such an important aspect of birding at this time of year, the day-to-day weather conditions play a large part in determining where we concentrate our efforts, and ultimately, what we see (and indeed, don’t see!). Reports just in advance of this year’s tour of very little or no water in the normally somewhat flooded areas, and almost dry river beds did not bode well for the usually quite warm end of the month period, when many birds depend on these food-rich habitats. Fortunately, this all changed just a couple of days prior to the commencement of the tour when the island was literally deluged with heavy rain over a 48 hour period; suddenly, there was water everywhere! Sadly, the Kalloni pool, located directly in front of our hotel, is nowhere near as good for birds as it was when we first started to visit the island, mainly due to it having become so overgrown that there is now barely any open water and virtually no muddy expanses. Efforts to revitalise this potentially wonderful piece of habitat are continuing but intransigence on the part of the current owner of the land is the main obstacle to progress. 

We did not have far to go, however, to find good birds. Metochi lake, a small body of water just over five minutes’ drive from our hotel provided us with excellent views of Little Crakes creeping along the reedy water’s edge, while the song of Golden Orioles coming from a field or two away drew our attention to a couple of stunningly bright males decorating the canopy of the taller trees. The fence lines that border the numerous farm tracks here were punctuated with numerous Whinchats while everywhere, it seems, there are Corn Buntings and Crested Larks, neither species suffering the decline here that has greatly reduced their numbers over much of western
Europe.

Marsh Harriers are present in good numbers around the Kalloni wetland areas and we were fortunate to have good views of a couple of first-summer male Pallid Harriers in the first days of the tour, while our only Montagu’s Harrier was a female that showed up at the last minute, on our last day! Other birds of prey included often conspicuous Short-toed Eagles, Lesser Kestrels at the west end of the island, just a handful of Red-footed Falcons and a number of Long-legged Buzzards, but for sheer excitement it was hard to beat the couple of Eleonora’s Falcons that arrived like stealth predators and were suddenly performing at close range, in beautiful evening light, only to vanish again a minute or two later.

An encounter with a beautiful adult male Lesser Grey Shrike on our first day was a welcome surprise as this is seldom a numerous bird and we often don’t see our first until the last days of the tour. Woodchats and Masked Shrikes were already established in breeding territories, while a few migrant Red-backeds completed the set. The sudden arrival of mixed flocks of various Yellow Wagtail subspecies is an exciting feature of spring birding on Lesvos and it is fun to try and identify as many different types as possible. Blue-headeds (flava) and Black-headeds (feldegg) are the most numerous with smaller numbers of Grey-headed (thunbergi) and ‘superciliaris-type’ intergrades, but we did not find any Sykes’s Wagtails (beema) this year. We encountered no less than four Citrine Wagtails including a stunning male right beside the road at Kalloni saltpans. A Spur-winged Plover in the vicinity of Kalloni saltpans was the source of considerable excitement but the rarest bird of the week was undoubtedly a male Siberian Stonechat, apparently the first record for the island, that was discovered by the leader of another bird tour and kindly shared with us.

One of the highlights was undoubtedly watching a procession of Alpine Swifts coming in to snatch a drink from a small coastal pool, so close that there was an audible ‘whack’ as each bird struck the surface. In addition to the common and widespread Rock Nuthatches and Cretzschmar’s Buntings we enjoyed excellent views of the two island specialities Krüper’s Nuthatch and Cinereous Bunting. Bee-eaters were particularly numerous this spring with a maximum day-count of 140 birds, but this was probably just a fraction of the actual number that was passing through the island that day. European Rollers, Black-headed Buntings, Eastern Subalpine Warblers, Ruppell’s Warblers, Blue Rock Thrushes, Turtle Doves and an early Rufous Bush Robin are just a few of the other very colourful species we recorded. No less than four species of owl occur on Lesvos, Barn, Long-eared, Little and Scops and we enjoyed excellent views of all of them.

The very pleasant, warm weather throughout added to the pleasure of the popular picnic lunches in the field, but it was not ideal for producing the dramatic turnover of migrant birds that we have witnessed most years. A number of normally ‘easy’ species were inexplicably scarce or completely absent this spring, among them White-winged Black and Whiskered Terns, Glossy Ibis and Garganey, but if migration was predictable it probably wouldn’t be half as exciting!

Updated: September 2014