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New Year's 'jolly-up' in Lake Kerkini Greece

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Old Thursday 4th January 2018, 19:36   #1
Scridifer
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New Year's 'jolly-up' in Lake Kerkini Greece

My Bulgarian birding friend has often regaled me on the virtues of Lake Kerkini in Northern Greece, so I put it on my mental list of 'must visit places', but was in no rush to tick it off as there are still many wonderful places here we haven't seen. When we were invited to celebrate the New Year there though it was too good an opportunity to miss - a birding trip and a multi-national 'knees-up' rolled into one! As the date for departure neared and the flock of 100 Lesser White-fronted Geese ( a target of mine) continued to linger there it seemed a most propitious decision indeed!
We set off early(ish!) Saturday morning and after a mid-morning coffee break stopped for lunch at Momchilgrad (the larget Bulgarian town with a Turkish majority of the populace) in the Eastern Rhodopes. Soon after we crossed over into Greece at Makaza and picked up the A2 motorway. A few Greek ticks presented themselves along the way but it was dark by the time we reached Hrisohorafa on the Eastern side of Lake Kerkini so any serious birding would have to wait until the morning!
We met up with my friend Mitko and his wife plus fellow birders from Serbia Dragan and Dusha, and had a wonderful meal of 'lake fish' (carp) washed down with local wine and Vergina beer at a local taverna along with our host Niko. Breakfast was set for 8.00am and we turned in for the night.

To be continued...
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Old Friday 5th January 2018, 11:44   #2
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New Year's Eve dawned cold but with a beautiful clear blue sky! After a wonderful breakfast prepared by Niko's parents (including cucumber jam - sounded unappetising to me but tasted divine!) we set off on the short drive to the lake.
Driving up onto the earthwork dyke that forms the Eastern boundary I got my first sight of it - wow is it big! 11 miles long and up to 5 miles wide at its fullest it is impressive to say the least! During Winter the level drops substantially exposing vast areas of vegetation that are grazed by wintering birds of all kinds and large numbers of Buffalo.
A large flock of Flamingo could be seen in the distance and closer in waders and ducks of every shape and size but no geese! We drove northwards towards the dryer areas stopping to scan occasionally picking up a couple of Greater Spotted Eagle and a lovely Peregrine but still no White-fronts! We then came across Costas, one off the Park Rangers, who Mitko knew and he informed us the LWFs had been there earlier but had moved on to another part of the lake! While we were chatting Costas said "Common Crane!" and sure enough 30 came honking over and landed some distance away to graze - my first Lifer of the trip! He also picked up a rare GSE var. fulvescens in his scope which warranted us going back for a slightly closer look!
After that we headed up to the northernmost corner of the lake where there are some reedbeds and deeper pools that still hold water in the Winter. On the way we spotted a small group of geese but unfortunately they were 'only' A. albifrons!
The pools were filled with Pochard, Wigeon, Pintail, Shoveller, Gadwall, Pygmy Cormorant and a solitary female Red-crested Pochard. Kingfishers were flying in and out of the reeds when suddenly we spotted an Otter just behind them! A lifer for Marina, Mitko's wife, and a real treat for us! Four young Coypu continued the mammal theme, playing around on a partly submerged log to the consternation of several Cormorants!
A couple of Greek birders stopped to have a chat and were just leaving when one of them spotted something walking along the dyke in the direction we had come - Wildcat the first I have seen in daylight!
It was time to make our way back now as we had a boat trip planned for the afternoon, not a bad morning's work all things considered!

To be continued...

Common Crane
Buffalo
View North to Bulgaria
Juvenile Flamingos
Wildcat
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Old Friday 5th January 2018, 17:51   #3
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So far it's stacking up nicely Chris!

Wild Cats, presumably not often seen during daylight hours? and I still need Flamingo as a tick!...something to look forward to, as is the rest of your trip report.

Cheers

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Old Saturday 6th January 2018, 06:21   #4
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So far it's stacking up nicely Chris!

Wild Cats, presumably not often seen during daylight hours? and I still need Flamingo as a tick!...something to look forward to, as is the rest of your trip report.

Cheers

Ken
Thanks Ken! Wildcat not often seen full stop, certainly here in Bulgaria! I had only seen it once, at night, prior to this one, though funnily enough saw another a few miles from home on the journey back from Greece (at twilight)!
Any plans to get that Flamingo tick?

All the best,

Chris
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Old Saturday 6th January 2018, 10:59   #5
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Back to the guest house to pick up Sandra, my wife, who had taken the 'non-birders option' of a lie-in and a late breakfast! A lunch of spicy buffalo sausage and Greek salad washed down by a glass of a delicious local red at another taverna and we were ready for out boat trip!
The breeding colony of Dalmatian Pelicans are one of the star attractions of Lake Kerkini - in the Winter (though not at other times of the year) they will readily take fish from the local fishermen and give some wonderful photo opportunities, both from the shore and boat!
We met Niko our host at the Western side of the lake where he has a plava, a traditional fishing boat of the area, which makes for a very stable photography platform. Armed with a bucket of fish he rowed us out perhaps thirty yards to the eagerly waiting Pelicans and the fun began! The time flew by photographing, and simply enjoying being surrounded by, these endangered, beautiful (and almost prehistoric at such close range!) birds but eventually it was time to head back to Hrisohorafa! Before darkness fell I picked up my last bird of 2017, a Black Redstart!
Niko's mother prepared a traditional meal for all the family plus guests, so Greeks, Bulgarians, Serbs and English celebrated in style before heading off to yet another taverna to see the New Year in! Plans were made for the next day which naturally commenced with a later than usual breakfast!

To be continued....
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Old Saturday 6th January 2018, 11:22   #6
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Great pics.Chris!...Pelican is another European tick I'll need to get. Currently I'll have to make do with the St.James's Park birds (actually had one in flight there once!)
Sounds like you're having a great time....no pressure then.
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Old Saturday 6th January 2018, 11:29   #7
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Great pics.Chris!...Pelican is another European tick I'll need to get. Currently I'll have to make do with the St.James's Park birds (actually had one in flight there once!)
Sounds like you're having a great time....no pressure then.
Thanks Ken, even an average photographer like me can't fail to get some decent shots there!
Sounds like you've got to think about Lake Kerkini next Winter then LOL! There was actually one Great White among all the Dalmatians too!

All the best,

Chris
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Old Sunday 7th January 2018, 17:37   #8
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New Year's Day - After a leisurely breakfast we set off in search of another target of mine, the Wallcreeper! Mitko knew a couple of reliable sites in a nearby town so I had high hopes!
The first cliff face seemed devoid of birdlife but then Mitko heard a (Western) Rock Nuthatch calling and quickly got the 'scope on it! I had seen it last Spring in the Rhodopes with one of Mitko's guides but it was pretty distant and we didn't have a 'scope (Mladen was guiding a photography tour and just giving me a couple of hours of his spare time) so this was almost like a Lifer for me! It was easy to see all the features that distinguish it from S. europaea very clearly.
We moved on up to the summit of the peak which is topped by the ruins of a Byzantine fortress. Whilst Mitko, Sandra and I were admiring the views Marina scaled the remnants of a lookout tower. "Come quickly!" she hissed "Another Rock Nuthatch is calling!" We swiftly joined her and sure enough there it was posing proudly for us a matter of yards away! The bird moved off downwards and in the absence of Wallcreepers we made our own way down. Turning a corner not one but two Rock Nuthatches darted out from the ancient brickwork, obviously a pair!
Plenty of passerines were also enjoying the beautiful sunshine but no luck on the Wallcreeper front so we adjourned to a local restaurant for a late lunch. There was just enough time to check out an abandoned quarry after lunch but sadly it wasn't to be!
Over dinner that evening it was decided we would have one more crack at the Lesser White-fronts before breakfast the next morning, after which we would be going our separate ways - Mitko and Marina heading due North to visit her parents near Sofia, while we were going East towards the Dadia Forest!

To be continued....
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Old Sunday 7th January 2018, 17:51   #9
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Wildcat not often seen full stop, certainly here in Bulgaria!
Saw several during winter on Bulgarian coast, including this one sunbathing on a rocky slope, but maybe just lucky.
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Old Sunday 7th January 2018, 17:55   #10
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It's been a long-long time since I've seen Rock Nuthatch Chris, I'd forgotten just how attractive they are, with that high orange waist band. Now Wall Creeper that's also a distant blast from the past, and at the very top of the premier division....
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Old Sunday 7th January 2018, 18:53   #11
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Saw several during winter on Bulgarian coast, including this one sunbathing on a rocky slope, but maybe just lucky.
I'd say you were lucky! Where was the pic taken?

Chris
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Old Sunday 7th January 2018, 19:21   #12
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Great way to end one year and start the new one! Some lovely photos too and well done on the Wildcat.

Visited SW Bulgaria and Northern Greece last Spring including a visit to Lake Kerkini - fantastic place.

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Old Sunday 7th January 2018, 19:39   #13
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It's been a long-long time since I've seen Rock Nuthatch Chris, I'd forgotten just how attractive they are, with that high orange waist band. Now Wall Creeper that's also a distant blast from the past, and at the very top of the premier division....
Yup, cracking bird Ken, still waiting on the Wallcreeper!

Chris
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Old Sunday 7th January 2018, 19:41   #14
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Great way to end one year and start the new one! Some lovely photos too and well done on the Wildcat.

Visited SW Bulgaria and Northern Greece last Spring including a visit to Lake Kerkini - fantastic place.

Gi
Many thanks Gi! Two beautiful countries for sure!

Chris
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Old Monday 8th January 2018, 17:04   #15
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02/01/2018 Having been woken once by an earthquake in the early hours (my first ever such experience, only 5.1 but eerie nevertheless!) I awoke at 06.30am for a 07.00am start only to be greeted by the sound of heavy rain! We agreed to give it an hour and fortunately by then the rain had stopped and the Sun had come out!
We hurried off to the lake and made our way to the spot where Costas had seen our quarry in the previous days, picking up Dunnock and a couple of Tundra Swan on the way! We could see a couple of large groups of geese but would they be Greater or the elusive Lesser? As Mitko quickly set up the 'scope their calls carried over to us "I think you're in luck Chris, they sound like Lessers to me!" Sure enough he was right and I was soon viewing a group of a hundred Lesser White-fronted Geese! The cherry on top of the cake was the presence of several Greaters in their midst which gave ample opportunity to study the difference between the two species! There was also a single Red-breasted Goose with them which may be the only one I see this Winter if our mild weather continues! Having feasted on my first Lifer of 2018 we headed back to a hearty breakfast, pausing briefly to admire a group of eight Spoonbills!
Now we were on our way to try and nail another target of mine - Black Vulture!

To be continued....

Lake Kerkini and surrounds
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Old Wednesday 10th January 2018, 18:16   #16
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02/01/18 continued. Having perused Niko's natural history library, in particular the excellent "Birdwatching in Northern Greece" by Steve Mills, and taken counsel from fellow birding guests, we(/I!) had decided to break our journey at Porto Lagos. The area consists of a wide range of habitats including a large lake, saltpans, lagoons and shoreline.
We didn't spend too long here as Sandra was getting hungry, but saw at least 200 Flamingo (mainly adults), dozens of Pygmy Cormorant, several Marsh Harriers, Great Egrets and Grey Herons galore, Black-necked, Great Crested and Little Grebes, and the icing on the cake for me, a single Red-necked Grebe!
We headed back to the town of Porto Lagos itself and had a delightful lunch of fresh local fish grilled to perfection in a busy little restaurant overlooking the harbour. Rejoining the A2 motorway we continued heading East towards the Turkish border and a few hours later were at our base for the night, just on the edge of the Dadia Forest and about 6 miles from the National Park Visitor Centre.

To be continued.....
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Old Wednesday 10th January 2018, 18:52   #17
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Really enjoying reading your trip report Chris. Good birding and good food - sounds like you had a great time.

Rich
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Old Wednesday 10th January 2018, 19:07   #18
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Thanks Rich, much appreciated!

Yup, throw in good company and you've got the perfect trip! I'd heartily recommend Northern Greece, and while you're there pop across the border into Bulgaria!

Chris
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Old Friday 12th January 2018, 09:42   #19
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03/01/18 We awoke to a grey morning, but at least the rain that was promised seemed to be holding off, for the time being at least! Another sumptuous breakfast later and we were on the short drive to the Visitors Centre!
Black Vultures often come to feed in the Eastern Rhodopes in Bulgaria but we don't have a population of our own, they are all birds that have made the short hop from here (as the scavenger flies perhaps 15 miles)! Despite having seen plenty of Griffon and Egyptian Vultures I had yet to see a Black, so shall we say I was getting my hopes up!
The Visitor Centre was well-signposted, about half a mile from the main square of Dadia itself, a beautiful little village in the heart of the protected area. A well-designed building with a lovely souvenir shop (Sandra picked up a couple of beautifully embroidered t-shirts for the grandchildren and I got myself a similarly embroidered beanie hat for 4 Euro) and an abundance of information about the park and its ecosystem. The staff were wonderful too, greeting us in perfect English and asking if it was our first visit. We declined the offer of a minibus ride to the raptor observation hide, instead opting to make the gentle one hour trek up to it through the forest in an effort to work off some of the magnificent meals we had been enjoying over the past few days!
A most pleasant walk it was too, along a clearly marked trail through a much more Mediterranean-type forest than we see in Bulgaria, dominated by Black and Turkish Pines with the occasional Oak. 'Crests could be heard everywhere and glimpsed now and then, and we had a delightful encounter with a red Squirrel. reaching the top the croaking of Ravens intensified and then we were in the hide itself. Yanni, one of the Park Rangers on duty there, greeted us and immediately offered me his 'scope trained on the feeding station. Not one but 40 Black Vulture on the ground or perched in nearby trees! Also present were eight Griffon Vultures, an adult plus a juvenile Spotted Eagle, a White-tailed Eagle and a magnificent Imperial Eagle, accompanied by sundry Ravens and Hooded Crows! I couldn't believe my luck! We spent the best part of an hour there, during which time the weather brightened and the Vultures started to depart, so we got some superb aerial views too! Walking back down the shorter 'Yellow route' we said our goodbyes to the staff at the centre and were finally on our way home to Bulgaria. A we left the confines of the forest and the landscape opened up we were treated to a lovely view of a magnificent male Hen Harrier quartering the field at the side of the road, a fitting end to our Greek Odyssey!

Thanks for reading my rambling account, and if you have been inspired at all and would like more details of any of the sites visited or accomodation please feel free to contact me!

Chris

Black Vultures
Juv. Spotted Eagle
Dadia Forest
Information Centre
Park Trails
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Old Friday 12th January 2018, 11:22   #20
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A great account Chris! I still need Black Vulture (I think?), and definitely Imperial Eagle, perhaps one day. Never been to Bulgaria, but have been to Greece albeit a long time ago, a great part of the world......got me thinking.
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Old Friday 12th January 2018, 12:59   #21
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Many thanks Ken!

If you ever have any questions about Bulgaria I'm always happy to help (if I don't know the answer I know a man who should)!

Chris
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Old Friday 12th January 2018, 14:10   #22
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Good report - very helpful too. We haven't been to Northern Greece yet, but when we do, we'll be borrowing some of the ideas from your itinerary :-)
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Old Friday 12th January 2018, 14:40   #23
RobinD
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Great report Chris.

I thoroughly enjoyed my spring visit to Northern Greece a couple of years ago. You have certainly made a winter trip a very appealing prospect!
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Old Friday 12th January 2018, 14:41   #24
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Originally Posted by stuartvine View Post
Good report - very helpful too. We haven't been to Northern Greece yet, but when we do, we'll be borrowing some of the ideas from your itinerary :-)
Many thanks for your kind words Stuart!

When you do get around to planning your trip don't forget about the Evros Delta near the Turkish border! A Ramsar site that could easily be combined with the Dadia Forest, we just didn't have time this trip but will be going back!

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Old Friday 12th January 2018, 18:18   #25
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This area always entices me, it is a reliable spot for Gtr Spotted Eagle, as you found Chris.

Great report as usual Chris.
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