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WINGS Birding Tours – Narrative

Greece: Lesvos

Spring Migration Through the Aegean

2019 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.” Nineteen years on, I can honestly say that 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. 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, while the friendships that have developed between many of them and everyone’s willingness to share the news of their finds further enhance the appeal of Lesvos.

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!). After an exceptionally cold and wet winter and early spring all over Greece, the temperature on the island when we arrived was considerably cooler than we are used to in the latter half of April and migration was perhaps a week or two behind the norm in the case of many species. Most years, birders are concerned that the wet pools and marshes that are so attractive to many birds will have dried up before the season gets into full swing. This year, it was quite the reverse: an over-abundance of water meant that the regular hotspots did not have their usual pulling power.

Despite these challenges there were always birds to look at, including Bitterns that stalked the area throughout, while Little Bitterns, Purple Herons, Squacco Herons, Great Egrets, and Glossy Ibis could all be watched with ease from the hotel carpark, or even from your hotel room balcony if you preferred! Little Crake, Water Rail, Great Reed Warbler, and Whiskered Tern also visited the pool but required a little more luck to see, and for those of us who have an interest in the non-avian inhabitants, the diminutive Balkan Tree Frogs were delightful.

In a way, it is the unpredictability of precisely when the waves of migrant birds will make an appearance on Lesvos, and the makeup of these arrivals, that makes the island such an exciting destination, and this is undoubtedly what keeps many birders coming back year after year. When migration is slow, there are many interesting breeding species to look for, including such attractive birds as Black Stork, Ruddy Shelduck, Hoopoe, Masked Shrike, Scops Owl, Little Owl, Rock Nuthatch, and of course two island specialities, Cinereous Bunting and Krüper’s Nuthatch. The latter was proving to be very difficult for most birders this spring on account of there not being a known occupied nest site at the spot that most people expect to find it. I have always preferred to search for it at alternative sites, and although this can sometimes take time, the satisfaction when you eventually find one usually justifies the effort. Happily, after a couple of hours of virtual complete silence at one of my favourite forest spots, a bit of impromptu ‘spishing’ (aimed at a party of unseen but vocalising Long-tailed Tits) attracted an agitated male Krüper’s Nuthatch into view, as well as a couple of seldom seen Coal Tits.

Another speciality of the region is the very smart-looking Rüppell’s Warbler, a male of which sang beautifully just four metres from the roadside at the only known breeding site on the island. While waiting in the warm sun for its intermittent performances we were able to admire a Chukar and a beautiful male Blue Rock Thrush, while occasional Audouin’s Gulls flew gracefully past just offshore.

Birding the more barren west end of the island is always exciting – the experience enhanced by the proliferation of attractive lichen-encrusted boulders upon which many of the birds are perched. We saw more Montagu’s Harriers on this tour than any previous tour, while Lesser Kestrels could usually be found dotted over one of their favourite ridges.

Both Cretzschmar’s and Cinereous Buntings are common here, their distinctive songs carrying from distances where spotting the source requires careful searching of the hillsides, but it didn’t take long to locate examples of both close to the roadside. Eastern Black-eared Wheatears are numerous in this habitat and their frenetic aerial displays, accompanied by a rich repertoire of mimicked sounds, leaves a lasting impression.

There are times when the birding on Lesvos seems nothing short of magical: we were birding along the eastern boundary of the Kalloni saltpans, where the light in the early morning enhances even the most ordinary of birds. The numerous low-flying Common Swifts took on a beauty that is seldom appreciated, while perfectly-mirrored flocks of Avocets, Greater Flamingos, and a lone Slender-billed Gull perched elegantly on a rock all looked like the kinds of images that feature in advertisements for optical equipment.

A distant bird of prey was spotted, the combination of gun-metal grey and brief hovering behaviour immediately indicating that it was the eagerly anticipated first Red-footed Falcon of the spring! The identity was confirmed through the telescope and when it perched on a fencepost it was just possible to make out some of the salient features, but not as much as we’d have liked. After a couple of minutes it took off, but instead of resuming its hovering activity it struck out over the saltpans, and began to tack left and right into the light breeze, coming closer to us with every alternate shift. Within less than a minute it passed literally 20m over our heads, having seemingly come to check us out, before continuing its journey.

On an evening visit to the same saltpans we experienced the exciting arrival of migrants that Lesvos is famous for; shortly after discovering a small flock of White-winged Black Terns hawking over the far side of the pans we came across ten freshly arrived Temminck’s Stints lined up on a muddy edge by the roadside. Suddenly, a flock of almost forty Whiskered Terns came in high off the sea and called noisily over our heads, and with our attention directed upwards we noticed a flock of 20 Night Herons at such high altitude that the telescope was needed to confirm their identity; it was all happening that evening!

The rarest birds for the island that we saw this year included the first Slavonian (Horned) Grebe for Lesvos, which accompanied a small party of Black-necked (Eared) Grebes, and an unprecedented flock of 19 Ferruginous Ducks, a reminder that on Lesvos, you never know what’s going to appear in front of you next. I can hardly wait for next year!

- Killian Mullarney


Created: 22 July 2019