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Sani area, Northern Greece, family holiday April 2023 (1 Viewer)


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A first post-Covid overseas family holiday for me, my wife and our 4 year old son. As with our last foreign holiday to Sagres in Portugal we looked for somewhere with good childcare, the prospect of decent weather, a less than 3 hour flight from London, and the combination of suitable luxury for my wife and some nearby birding for me. This led us to the Sani Resort in the Halkidiki area of Northern Greece, staying for a week at the end of the Easter school holidays (15 – 22 April 2023).

From a timing perspective our trip was likely to be too early for some of the target birds that visiting British birders would aim for; Levant Sparrowhawk, Eleonora’s Falcon, Lesser Grey & Masked Shrikes, Olive-tree Warbler, and Black-headed Bunting all typically arrive in May. However, mid-April was when we could go this year, and my hope was to see a few typical wide ranging Southern European species that I haven’t seen for a few years. eBird indicated a list of exactly 100 species which I had a greater than 1% chance of seeing in Halkidiki in April.

Logistics involved a flight and hotel package booked with British Airways, flying out of London Gatwick to Thessaloniki, and staying in a 2 bedroom sea view family suite at the Sani Beach hotel. I booked a rental car for our stay from Europcar, which I belatedly discovered is near rather than at the airport in Thessaloniki. The Sani Beach hotel is part of the Sani Resort complex, which offers family-oriented accommodation, services and high-end eating options for a steep price (going in April helped).

Halkidiki evidently isn’t on most birders’ itineraries when visiting Greece, I was unable to find any trip reports covering the area before our holiday. The resort is in the Halkidiki area of Central Macedonia in Northern Greece. On eBird Halkidiki is spelt ‘Chalkidiki’, and looking at hotspots in this area flagged two of any significance:
  • Sani Wetland, also sometimes referred to as Nea Fokea Marsh, adjacent and to the North-East of the resort; and,
  • Agios Mamas Wetland, c. 20km drive North of the resort.
Information on Sani Wetland
Information on Agios Mamas Wetland


Car rental: It is important to note Europcar (and all of the other main rental agencies at and around Thessaloniki Airport) require you to pay with a credit (not debit) card, to show this same card on arrival, and use this same card to authorise a deposit, for which you will need to know your credit card pin number. Other visitors were clearly falling foul of this requirement, though locals are seemingly set up to ‘help’ in this situation with mates who can rent them a vehicle for cash (and a cash deposit)…

Drive from Thessaloniki to Sani Resort: Straightforward, took about 45 minutes, several speed cameras.

Sani Beach Hotel (and Resort): Very well set up for families, and correspondingly less attractive for those without children to entertain. High quality accommodation, service and food, all sorts of activities available, many included in the price. This is an expensive place to stay, though given the quality I didn’t begrudge the price. We stayed in a 2 bedroom sea-view suite, which was very nice, though noise from fellow guests was at times annoying. If we return I would spend the extra on a villa. My wife enjoyed staying at Sani Resort, our son less so, but because of homesickness rather than any aspect of the resort (he thoroughly enjoyed the club cars and sandy beach, and put up with the kids club).

Weather: Average April temperature highs are around 20C, and that was broadly what we got, it rained on two of the days we were present, and at times there was a brisk cold wind. What I expected rather than hoped for, rain did reduce my birding a fair bit.
Birds and Birding

A number of factors influenced what I saw in relation to the 100 species that e-bird data indicated were plausible:
  • E-bird is only as good as the amount of data it holds, for Halkidiki this is quite limited in April, as it is evidently earlier than when many visitors come to the region, and there are few local birders submitting sightings to the platform. Hence, the e-Bird list is likely to be incomplete.
  • April is clearly a transition month, with wintering waterfowl leaving (and largely gone by the time we arrived), passage migration for some species getting underway, and other resident birds nesting and as a result inconspicuous. My sense this year is that spring migration was a bit delayed.
  • Water levels at Sani Wetlands were high, as a result I saw practically no waders there, and most herons were only ever seen in flight. My guess is that some years water levels are lower.
  • Most of my birding was spent looking out to sea from my hotel balcony, or exploring Sani Wetlands and the adjacent Bousoulas coastal pine woods. I had a very brief rain afflicted visit to Agios Mamas, but otherwise didn’t visit any other habitats. More time at Agios Mamas, and in nearby farmland, hill-country, and oak woodland would have increased what I saw significantly.
  • Family commitments took priority over birding, so I generally had a short time on our balcony before my wife and child got up and incidental birding around the resort. Otherwise my birding was generally between mid-morning and mid-afternoon (not ideal), and comprised two short visits and one 4 hour/10km visit to Bousoulas woods and Sani wetland, plus half an hour at Agios Mamas wetlands in driving rain.
I enjoyed birding in and around Sani Resort, and suspect I barely scratched the surface of what could be seen. In practice I saw 92 species, including 70 of the 100 species listed by eBird. The main species groups I missed were wintering waterfowl and passage waders. It is also worth mentioning that many of the birds I saw were seen only in flight, at distance, briefly, or once – or all of these. A scope is necessary to get the best out of birding the area.

Highlights comprised a male Collared Flycatcher (my only lifer), two Collared Pratincoles and ever glorious European Bee-eaters; these were all seen well, at close range. The supporting cast included Ferruginous Duck, Alpine Swift, Yelkouan & Scopoli’s Shearwater, Pygmy Cormorant, Purple, Squacco & Black-crowned Night Heron, Hoopoe, Syrian Woodpecker, Eleonora’s Falcon, Red-backed & Woodchat Shrike, Crested Lark, Red-rumped Swallow, Eastern Orphean & Sardinian Warbler, Spanish Sparrow, and Cirl Bunting.

1. Sani Resort

Sani sits on the West coast, near the Northern end of the Kassandra peninsular in Halkidiki. The resort area is large, comprising a number of hotels, villas, pools, a small marina, church, tennis & football training areas, manicured lawns and gardens, dotted with a few trees, silver-sand beaches, a small rocky headland with ancient watch-tower. The resort looks out onto the shallow waters of the Thermaic Gulf of the Aegean Sea, with Mount Olympos visible at times in the distance, it is backed by the largely dry southern end of Sani Wetlands, and flanked to the North by the coastal Bousoulas pine woods, and South by steep cliffs and mixed pine/oak woodland. It is very pretty indeed.

The sea: Short spells of sea-watching each morning and some late evenings were reasonably productive. The commonest offshore and coastal bird was by far Yellow-legged Gull. Occasionally I picked out one or two Mediterranean Gulls following small fishing boats, and one morning there was a huge flock of c.280 Little Gulls feeding at distance offshore. These were accompanied by seven Black Terns, though more frequently I saw Sandwich Terns, and a few Common Terns. Although not previously reported on e-bird for the area Scopoli’s Shearwaters were reasonably common offshore at the time of my visit, marginally outnumbering Yelkouan Shearwaters, both species generally just loafing around.

A few Great and Pygmy Cormorant were sometimes present on or over the sea to the North of the resort, and some migration was evident with small numbers of Little Egrets and a single flock of Glossy Ibis passing North. A few Mallard and Shelduck were sometimes seen along the shoreline, these seemed like local birds rather than migrants. One morning I saw a single large dark Eleanora’s Falcon flying North low over the sea about a kilometre offshore.

Beaches and marina: Largely bird-less, a Common Sandpiper early one morning on the beach, a couple of Common Terns in the marina once were about it. We did take a 30 minute sunset cruise one evening, but this didn’t go far enough to see anything that couldn’t be seen better from shore. One evening shortly after sunset I saw a Black-crowned Night Heron flying over the marina towards the wetlands, and one afternoon I saw a Short-toed Eagle following the coastline North.

Resort grounds: Yellow-legged Gull, Hooded Crow, Blackbird, Starling, Great Tit, Sardinian Warbler, Barn Swallow, House Martin, Common Swift, Chaffinch, Greenfinch, Goldfinch and House Sparrow were all common in and around the resort grounds. Chiffchaff & Willow Warbler were both heard a few times, and one evening I heard Scops Owl near the Sani Beach reception entrance. I suspect an early morning circuit might produce a few passerine migrants, but that these swiftly move into the adjacent woodland and wetlands.

Stavronikitas headland and tower: Some potential for early morning migrants, with single Woodchat Shrike, Whitethroat, Northern Wheatear & White Wagtail during my stay. I also saw a Little Owl a couple of times (very early and very late) on the tower, and a Common Kestrel was often present in the area too.

2. Bousoulas Woods

Access to Bousoulas woods and the adjacent Sani Wetlands: On reaching the main resort entrance area, turn right along a paved road signed towards Sani Beach, after c500m the paved road bends to the left towards the Sani Beach hotel, at this point veer right to continue straight on, along a gravel road signed ‘Bousoulas Bar Parking’. Park here alongside the road, or if short of time continue along the gravel road to the old pump house (second building you reach), and park there.

To the left of the start of the gravel road is an area of rough grass, a raised mound of rubble and scrub, maintenance area and water treatment plant. This area is worth a check, it held Yellow Wagtail, Crested Lark, Northern Wheatear, Spanish Sparrow and Red-rumped Swallow during my visits.

The main pine woods, interspersed with a few heath clearings, and a scrubby understory extend some 2.5km and 300-500m wide, North from the resort, covering low sand dunes between the shoreline and Sani wetlands. This is really nice habitat, beautiful flowers & butterflies during my visit, and good birding, albeit at low densities. There are a couple of well-marked broad sandy trails that meander through the woods, these join with beach and also the main gravel track along the Western edge of the wetlands at a couple of points.

In addition to species seen more generally around the resort, the woods held good numbers of Nightingale, plus a few recently arrived Collared, Pied and Spotted Flycatcher, Wood Warbler, Red-backed and Woodchat Shrike, Turtle Dove, overhead Alpine Swift, and resident Collared Dove, Syrian Woodpecker, Kestrel and Eurasian Sparrowhawk.

3. Sani Wetlands

There are two parts to the Sani wetlands; the main marsh and Stavronikitas lake(s) and Yerani lake(s), slightly separately further North. The Stavronikitas section is a freshwater marsh, extending some 5km North from the main entrance road to the Sani Resort, and reaching up to 1km in width. Yerani lakes, 4-500m North of Stavronikitas are saline, and occupy an area of c.1km by 500m.

At first sight, coming from the resort/parking area the Stavronikitas section of the wetlands is quite daunting; during my visit water levels were high, but despite this for the first kilometre or so no open water is visible, just thick and often tall reed-beds. Some birds were visible in flight over this section (Pygmy Cormorant, Purple Heron, Marsh Harrier & Steppe Buzzard), and alongside the track (Hoopoe, Whinchat, Woodchat & Red-backed Shrike), but birding was generally more rewarding in the adjacent pine woods.

Once you reach the old pump house, which is an obvious building, and the second building you come to, things improve markedly. Some open water is visible from here, and there is a path which cuts across the wetlands, and the full length of this should be walked as it provides views of open water and reed-bed edges to the North & South. The far end is blocked/fenced where it reaches farmland. I saw a few migrants in the small bushes along the path (Blackcap, Lesser Whitethroat, Eastern Orphean Warbler), and had decent views of both Common and Great Reed Warbler in the adjacent reed-beds.

Mallard, Coot, Moorhen, Great Crested & Little Grebe, and Mute Swan were all reasonably obvious on the open water, and with perseverance the odd Pochard and Ferruginous Duck could be seen too. Good numbers of Pygmy Cormorant and a few Great Cormorant were starting to nest and could be seen around the fringes of the lakes, with Purple and Squacco Heron occasionally emerging from the reeds on short flights. Birds overhead included two Collared Pratincole and a single Hobby.

On returning to the main gravel road it is well worth continuing North along it beyond the old pumphouse, the road rises through an area in which I saw Syrian Woodpecker, and provides a more elevated albeit distant view of the Northern sections of the Stavronikitas section of marsh and lakes. From here it was possible to view distant nesting Little Egrets, and Squacco Herons perched amongst the nesting and roosting Pygmy Cormorants. The Northernmost part of the lake seemed to hold a few more ducks (including Ferruginous and a lingering Wigeon).

Continuing on you reach a point at which the main gravel road turns sharply left and heads downhill past a few private properties, through a narrow section of pines and on down to the beach (I saw my only Kentish Plover here). However, the better route is to continue straight on where the gravel road turns left, along a dirt farm track. Then after about 400m take the next obvious dirt farm track heading left, which will bring you down to the saline Yerani lakes (I returned this way).

At the time of my visit the Yerani lakes were too deep to hold any Flamingo or waders, with just a few Shelduck and Mallard floating about.

The one time I completed the full walk, initially through Bousoulas woods to the old pumphouse, then across and along the Stavronikitas lake and along to Yerani and back was just over 10km long, and took me just over 4 ½ hours at a birdwatching pace. At times I was rushed and walking quite fast on my return, one could easily spend six hours birding this route to do it justice.

4. Agios Mamas

This comprises an extensive shallow saline lake with surrounding marshes, scrub, beach and farmland. In decent weather it is probable best viewed from a farm track along its Western edge, or unsurfaced roads inshore of the beach along its Eastern edge.

I viewed the area initially from parking alongside the Agios Mamas Greek Orthodox Church, having used google maps to get me to this site. This spot is a reasonable starting point, providing a good overview of the area, and in poor weather, a surfaced road. I then drove c.1km south along this surfaced road, parking beyond the ‘Flamingo View Suites’ and walking down a farm track closer to the lake.

Highlights from these spots included nice views of European Bee-eaters, Whinchats, a few larger waders, including a Stone Curlew and reasonable numbers of Black-winged Stilts, many distant Greater Flamingo and a single Gull-billed Tern. I only had a 30-40 minute visit in driving rain to this site, which is a shame as it looked fantastic, and is probably a bit more accessible/easier birding than Sani wetlands. With more time and better weather I reckon I would have seen a lot more here.
Birds seen
  1. Mute Swan: A few birds on Stavronikitas lake, and a single bird on Yerani lake
  2. Common Shelduck: 2-3 birds often seen flying along the coast early in the morning from Sani resort, present on Yerani lake and at Agios Mamas wetlands.
  3. Eurasian Wigeon: A single female bird on Stavronikitas lake
  4. Mallard: Common at Sani wetlands
  5. Common Pochard: 4-5 Stavronikitas lake
  6. Ferruginous Duck: Up to 11 Stavronikitas lake
  7. Greater Flamingo: 120+ at Agios Mamas wetlands
  8. Little Grebe: 16 at Sani wetlands
  9. Great Crested Grebe: 8 at Sani wetlands
  10. Feral (Rock) Pigeon: Occasionally seen
  11. European Turtle-Dove: 1 on the 20th & 12 on the 21st April, Bousoulas woods
  12. Eurasian Collared-Dove: Common in Bousoulas woods
  13. Alpine Swift: 2 over Bousoulas woods on the 20th April
  14. Common Swift: Common
  15. Eurasian Moorhen: 4 Stavronikitas lake
  16. Eurasian Coot: 45+ Stavronikitas lake
  17. Eurasian Thick-knee: 1 Agios Mamas
  18. Black-winged Stilt: 8 Agios Mamas
  19. Pied Avocet: 6 Agios Mamas
  20. Kentish Plover: 1 on the beach near Yerani lakes
  21. Ruff: c. 30 Agios Mamas
  22. Common Sandpiper: 1 on the beach at Sani Resort
  23. Common Greenshank: 3 Agios Mamas
  24. Common Redshank: 8 Agios Mamas
  25. Collared Pratincole: 2 over Stavronikitas lake on the 20th April
  26. Little Gull: 280 offshore Sani Resort and 1 Stavronikitas lake on the 20th April
  27. Mediterranean Gull: 1 on the 19th and 2 on the 21st April offshore Sani following fishing boats, 5 in Nea Moudania harbour on the 19th
  28. Yellow-legged Gull: Common and widespread
  29. Gull-billed Tern: 1 Agios Mamas
  30. Black Tern: 7 offshore with Little Gulls on the 20th April
  31. Common Tern: 2 Sani Marina on 16th April, 2 Nea Moudania harbour on the 19th April
  32. Sandwich Tern: 4 on the 16th April offshore Sani, 2 in Nea Moudania harbour on the 19th
  33. Cory's Shearwater: Small numbers (3-12) offshore Sani Resort every day, early morning & evening.
  34. Yelkouan Shearwater: Small numbers (1-7) offshore Sani Resort every day, early morning & evening.
  35. Pygmy Cormorant: Individual birds seen occasionally along the shore of Sani Resort, 80+ present (and beginning to nest) Stavronikitas lakes.
  36. Great Cormorant: Up to 3 seen occasionally along the shore of Sani Resort, 5+ present Stavronikitas lakes.
  37. Grey Heron: 1 in flight over Stavronikitas lakes on 16 April, 6 at Agios Mamas
  38. Purple Heron: Regularly seen in flight over Stavronikitas lakes
  39. Little Egret: A few flying North offshore, and at Stavronikitas lakes, where 3 birds seen on nests.
  40. Squacco Heron: A few flying over plus 2-3 distantly at the Northern end of Stavronikitas lakes
  41. Black-crowned Night-Heron: A single bird at 8pm on the 20th April, flying over the marina area.
  42. Glossy Ibis: A flock of 24 flying North offshore on the 18th April
  43. Eurasian Spoonbill: One in flight between Stavronikitas and Yerani lakes on 20th April
  44. Short-toed Snake-Eagle: One heading North along coast on the 18th April
  45. Eurasian Marsh-Harrier: Common over Sani wetlands, also present at Agios Mamas
  46. Eurasian Sparrowhawk: Singles over Bousoulas woods, 17th & 20th April
  47. Common Buzzard: Those seen well enough to identify as such were ‘Steppe’ Buzzard; seen in small numbers over Sani Wetlands/Bousoulas woods
  48. Little Owl: A single bird atop Stavronikitas tower on the early morning and late evening of the 17th April
  49. Eurasian Hoopoe: Single birds seen on 3 dates at the back of Sani Resort & along the edge of the wetlands.
  50. European Bee-eater: 26 seen well at Agios Mamas, and the 14 migrating overhead near Yerani lakes the next day on the 20th April
  51. Syrian Woodpecker: Single birds seen in Bousoulas woods on the 16th & 20th April
  52. Eurasian Kestrel: Small numbers present around Sani Resort & wetlands, and at Agios Mamas
  53. Eleonora's Falcon: One offshore from Sani on the 17 April.
  54. Eurasian Hobby: One over Stavronikitas lake 20th April
  55. Peregrine Falcon: One Agios Mamas 19th April, chasing Ruff.
  56. Red-backed Shrike: 1-4 seen at the back of Sani Resort and along the edge of Sani Wetland on the 18, 20 & 21st April.
  57. Woodchat Shrike: 1-3 seen at the resort, in Bousoulas woods and alongside Sani wetlands on the 16, 17 & 20th April
  58. Eurasian Magpie: Common & widespread
  59. Hooded Crow: Common & widespread
  60. Jackdaw: Noted at Thessaloniki airport 22nd April
  61. Great Tit: Common & widespread
  62. Crested Lark: 1-7 often present in the maintenance & Bousoulas bar parking area, also present at Agios Mamas.
  63. Sedge Warbler: A single bird at Yerani lake on the 20th April
  64. Common Reed Warbler: A single bird seen at Stavronikitas lake on the 20th April, heard more frequently.
  65. Great Reed Warbler: 3 on the 20th & 21st April at Stavronikitas lake, heard more frequently
  66. Barn Swallow: Common & widespread
  67. Red-rumped Swallow: 2 over Sani wetlands/Bousoulas woods on the 16th & 20th April, 2 at Nea Moudania on the 19 April
  68. Common House-Martin: Common & widespread
  69. Wood Warbler: 2 Bousoulas woods, 20th April
  70. Eurasian Blackcap: 1 female along path across Stavronikitas lakes, 20th April
  71. Lesser Whitethroat: 2 along path across Stavronikitas lakes, 21st April
  72. Eastern Orphean Warbler: 1 along path across Stavronikitas lakes, 20th April
  73. Sardinian Warbler: Common & widespread
  74. Greater Whitethroat: 1 Sani resort, 18th April
  75. European Starling: Common & widespread
  76. Eurasian Blackbird: Common & widespread
  77. Spotted Flycatcher: 1 Bousoulas woods, 20th April
  78. Common Nightingale: Common in Bousoulas woods
  79. European Pied Flycatcher: 1 Bousoulas woods, 17th April
  80. Collared Flycatcher: 2 (male & female) Bousoulas woods, 20th April
  81. Whinchat: 2 Agios Mamas wetland 19th April, 1 Stavronikitas lakes 21st April
  82. Northern Wheatear: Singles at Sani resort and maintenance area on the 18th and 21st April
  83. House Sparrow: Common and widespread
  84. Spanish Sparrow: 6 at the Sani resort maintenance area, 16th April
  85. Yellow Wagtail: 9 at the Sani resort maintenance area, 16th April, another here on the 20th April, and 5 along the path across Stavronikitas lakes on the same date
  86. White Wagtail: 1 at Sani resort on the 21st April
  87. Common Chaffinch: Common and widespread
  88. European Greenfinch: Common and widespread
  89. European Goldfinch: Common and widespread
  90. Corn Bunting: More often heard than seen; 1 at the Southern (dry) end of Stavronikitas lakes on the 18th April, 3 at the far end of the track across these lakes on the 20th April, and 2 at Agios Mamas wetlands on the 19th April
  91. Cirl Bunting: 1 in Bousoulas woods on the 20th April
  92. Reed Bunting: 1 in Bousoulas woods on the 20th April
FWIW PJ, I visited the same hotel complex c40 years ago, and visited the marsh area to the North East, if memory serves it was called “Nea Potidea” and I do remember the BWStilts, BHWagtail (feldegg), Gull-billed Terns, Pratincoles and Bimaculated Lark, the latter you’ve failed to mention, thus have to assume they are no longer present?
Unfortunately I can’t remember the exact time of my visits, although they must have been during the Spring school holidays.

FWIW PJ, I visited the same hotel complex c40 years ago, and visited the marsh area to the North East, if memory serves it was called “Nea Potidea” and I do remember the BWStilts, BHWagtail (feldegg), Gull-billed Terns, Pratincoles and Bimaculated Lark, the latter you’ve failed to mention, thus have to assume they are no longer present?
Unfortunately I can’t remember the exact time of my visits, although they must have been during the Spring school holidays.

Hi Ken,

I suspect you are recalling the Agios Mamas Marsh, NE of Nea Poteidaia. Calandra (rather than Bimaculated) and Short-toed Lark are still reported from here. I didn’t see either, probably because the weather was hideous, and my visit there too short.

I had hoped to see other larks around Sani (Short-toed and Woodlark), and reckon with more time these could be found there.

If I have the time I will add a bit more to this report re birds heard, near misses, and surprising misses.

Kind regards, Paul
Might be worth checking out Angelochori Lagoon it's only a couple of KMs from the airport good for waders I've had Terek Sandpiper here plus White Pelcan in the past,Lake Kerkini is very doable from Sani it's an amazing place.
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