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North East Greece: Lake Kerkini area

18 April to 23 April 2016

By Stephen Burch, England

Last year I had made a successful spring visit to Turkey in search of Brown Fish Owl etc. Having acquired a taste for eastern European birding, this year I thought I'd try another area not too far away. For almost as long as I can remember, the pelicans, pygmy cormorants and other water birds to be found in various lakes in Greece and the old Yugoslavia had interested me. However Lake Prespa in north west Greece seemed very remote and of course the Balkan war ruled out any thoughts of a trip to Yugoslavia. Much more recently I became aware of the relatively new site of  Lake Kerkini in Greece which seemed to tick several boxes. It was within easy reach of an international airport with scheduled flights (Thessaloniki) and had boat trips. Nearer the time I found it also had some very tempting other birds - most notably Grey-headed Woodpecker that would complete my set of all the European Woodpeckers.

Although this area is only about 1 hour's drive north from Thessaloniki, it is certainly not a tourist area and accommodation is somewhat limited. After a somewhat hectic schedule on previous recent spring trips, I decided it was time to stay put so I planned to stay in one place close to the lake and not to move during my five nights in the area. However it didn't quite work out like that, more of which later.

English was not widely spoken especially in the local restaurants but at least English menus were available which helped to some extent.

Mid April was a convenient time for me to visit but I was also tempted by a suggestion (in the book by Steve Mills) that Collared Flycatchers pass through the region and "peak" in mid April. In the event there was however little sign of any passage at all, let alone anything as exotic as Collared Flycatcher! In fact as others remarked, around the lake there seemed to be a dearth of warblers, shrikes and the like, perhaps due to the relatively early date. Maybe mid May would have been better in that respect.

With good weather and good sunny conditions for photography much of the time, I spent a fair amount of time out and about, from shortly after sunrise until just before sunset, although sometimes with a breather in the middle of the day. In many places, using the car as a hide worked well for photography and the two boat trips I went on in the late afternoon also provided good photo opportunities.

British Airways fly direct from Gatwick to Thessaloniki and I was able to get a remarkably good deal this early in the season mainly because I managed to get 100 off in exchange for some BA miles. This left a balance to pay of only 50 for the return fare! The outward flight left at a challenging 06:50, so not being keen on ridiculously early starts I stayed nearby at the efficient, modern Courtyard Hotel (with lift). This did me very well and was much better than the Stanhill Court Hotel we'd stayed at prior to our Trinidad & Tobago trip last year. Even so, I was up early for the airport hotel bus at c. 04:45, which only took about 15mins to reach the north terminal. The return flight left Thessaloniki at a much more civilised time around midday. The food outbound wasn't up to much as is usual with BA these days, but I was pleasantly surprised by the lunch on the way back. Both flights were surprisingly full.

Car hire
I used SixT which seemed to offer a reasonable price on the full size cars that I prefer. The rental desk was just outside the arrivals hall but I had then to go upstairs before getting a short shuttle transfer to the hire car compound. The car I got had plenty of leg room and was in good condition and was good to drive.

As with most recent trips, I relied almost entirely on my SatNav, using lat, long (GPS) coordinates I had stored in advance mainly from the Steve Mills book and the Gosney booklet (see below) both of which have GPS coordinates.  I also had a 1:250,000 Topo 250 map of the area - called Macedonia, R4 Greece Regional Maps, purchased from Stanfords which was helpful in showing me roughly where I was, and the general lie of the land. 

Birding information
The book by Steve Mills "Birdwatching in Northern Greece" was very useful for the Lake Kerkini area while the Gosney booklet, "Finding Birds in Northern Greece" had rather more information in it about the nearby Mount Vrontou which was however disappointing birdwise. Unlike some other recent trips, online trip reports seemed to be of limited value and added little to the information available in the Mills and Gosney publications.

I was very fortunate with the weather which was mainly warm or even hot up to 32°C on the second day, with plenty of sun particularly later in the week. This made for good photographic conditions, particularly early mornings and the last couple of hours before sunset when bird activity was noticeably higher.

All the pics shown below were taken with my DSLR equipment - Canon EOS 7D Mk II with either my EF400mm/f4 DO lens (often with a x1.4TC) or my EF400mmf5.6.  All pics were taken in RAW format, and I use NeatImage for noise suppression, with PhotoShop Elements 9.0 for subsequent processing. For further details see the equipment and image processing pages elsewhere on this website.

Coast near to Thessaloniki airport
Arriving at lunchtime I thought I would pay a quick visit to the coast, even though it was in completely opposite direction to my ultimate destination of Lake Kerkini. The best site sounded to be Anglehori, as described in the Mills (and Gosney) books. This wasn't far from the airport and took perhaps 20mins.

Angelohori Plain and lagoon (GPS 40.481087, 22.815811)
I found the salt pans easily enough but there seemed no obvious access to them and the lagoon beyond on foot or by car. With stray dogs in the adjacent car park, I thought I'd try the plain to the south instead which is described better by Gosney than Mills. However the SatNav wasn't brilliant and kept on trying to take me down un-driveable tracks but eventually I succeeded in reaching it. This area contained a fair amount of water and gave the immediate impression of being quite "birdy" even from the road, with masses of Crested Lark, Black-headed Wagtails, a Buzzard, Kestrels, Corn Bunting, three Turtle Doves and a small flock of Wood Sandpipers put up by a flock of goats (which was to be a recurring theme of this trip). Unlike the Gosney suggestion of walking from his site 4, I carried on along the track to the sea, then turned right and followed a driveable track as far as it went, passing a small beach-side taverna. At the far point (see GPS coords above) I was almost at the SW corner of the lagoon, which seemed pretty birdless from what I could see over the intervening bank. However the plain inland from the track was far from it, with a pair of Stone Curlew close by the road. There was also a flooded area, where a channel had been deliberately dug through to the sea, with Black-winged Stilts and more Wood Sandpipers. There were various signs around the place which suggested it might have been some sort of reserve but I couldn't be sure as they were all in Greek!

My main target here was to be found (and heard) high in the air above! It was my first ever Calandra Lark which was engaged in periodic song flights way up above, interspersed with returns to earth which allowed me to attempt some photography. This was a particularly satisfying tick, as I had first failed to find one over 35 years ago on La Crau plain in Southern France!

Calandra Lark Black winged Stilt  
Calandra Lark returning to earth Black winged Stilt
Stone Curlew
Distant Stone Curlew

Extricating myself from this site by SatNav was again difficult but at last I reached a proper tarmacked road and headed back towards the airport. Thereafter the drive north to the Lake Kerkini area was remarkably easy, with dual carriageways/motorways a good proportion of the route, without any need to go into Thessaloniki itself. So in only about an hour I reached the Lake Kerkini area and was immediately struck by the amount of Nightingale song seemingly coming from almost every roadside bush!

Rather than giving a chronological account of my various wanderings around the Lake Kerkini area over the next four days it seems more useful to give a site by site account.

Lake Kerkini sites

1. Boat trips by Nikos Gallios
Nikos is the enterprising owner of the Limneo Hotel where I stayed for my first three nights in the area and he also has a small boat for birder trips on the lake. He offered me two private (i.e. just him and me) late afternoon trips, each lasting 2-3 hours, at a quite reasonable price. Late in the day is probably best for photography here as, due to the low water levels, boats had to approach from the west the area where most of the birds congregate 

These boat trips were the photographic highlight of my stay and left from the eastern shore near the pumping station from where it took nearly 30mins to get to the main areas for the pelicans and other water birds. There was an area of shore where many pelicans rest and also the crowded breeding island for Dalmatian Pelicans but it wasn't possible to approach either of these areas very closely. There were a few birds sitting on isolated rocks that were better targets but we passed these by quite quickly so photos had to be taken hastily.

As I quickly learnt, the main opportunities were presented by birds in flight that sometimes came quite close to boat, and once or twice very close, but this was fairly hit and miss and luck played a big part.

Nikos told me that the prime season for Dalmatian photography is the winter months when they have their fully red bills and get very tame - coming right up to or even onto the boat! A telephoto lens wouldn't be needed, but in April it is very different and most birds were generally pretty wary, of both boats and people. In January and February he told me he spends long hours on the lake with photographic clients.

Trip 1
On the first trip, there was thin cloud making for bright conditions but somewhat lacking in contrast and the colours depended very much on the angle to the sun, as shown below. This trip was mainly notable for the close approach to a couple of Dalmatian Pelicans on some isolated rocks and a brief close fly past of a squadron of White's. The flooded forest also had plenty of herons (Night and Squacco) and Egrets but it was difficult for the boat to get close enough for good photos without scaring them all off!

Dalmatian Pelican Dalmatian Pelican
Dalmatian Pelicans (click to enlarge)
Dalmatian Pelican White Pelican
Dalmatian Pelican White Pelican (click to enlarge)
White Pelicans (click to enlarge)
Night Heron at the flooded forest

Trip 2
The second trip was favoured by direct sunlight. The highlight was a massive but quite distant feeding frenzy in which over a thousand Cormorants were involved over a substantial area, beating their wings presumably to panic the fish. Various groups of pelicans were also keen to get in on the action as well! By the time we had arrived on the scene most of the activity was diminishing and Nikos was reluctant to try to get any closer.

Dalmatian Pelican and Cormorant feeding frenzy
Dalmatian Pelicans (click to enlarge)
White Pelicans White Pelicans
White Pelicans
White Pelicans (click upper two to enlarge)
Pygmy Cormorant Pygmy Cormorant
Pygmy Cormorants - a difficult bird to get close to.

2. Western Shore (GPS 41.192, 23.094)
When I first arrived in the late afternoon at Lake Kerkini the obvious thing to do was to drive along the road that winds up the western side of the lake. Near the start, by the dam, where the water is deepest, there were only a few birds visible on the lake - mainly Great-crested Grebe. Further on views of the lake were quite intermittent until Mills site 9 (Korifoudi marshes) is reached. Here there are pools to the west of the road and the lake edge on the eastern side is much shallower and there were my first Dalmatian Pelicans fairly close in. There were also good numbers of Little Egrets, Grey Herons and the odd Squacco Heron and Pygmy Cormorant. I didn't notice any of the waders, shrikes or crakes mentioned in the Mills book though.

Dalmatian Pelican
Dalmatian Pelicans from the shore  (click to enlarge)

3. Mandraki Harbour (GPS 41.256, 23.140)
This site is on the northern shore of the lake and is reached down a small road from the village. It is clearly a recognised and popular spot from where to view the lake and surrounding marshes, as there are seats and explanatory signs. It was the best site I found around the lake but I suspect conditions here are very dependent on water levels. During my stay the water level rose slightly and my last visit was the best with shallow water right up to the shoreline.

I visited this site three times. The first was in the middle of the day and a group of British birders were just leaving as I arrived. With this disturbance and lower water levels everything had moved off and there were very distant views of pelicans with slightly closer Spoonbills, Egrets, Squacco Herons, Black Stork, Wood Sandpipers and Little Ringed Plover. My second visit was in the early morning just after dawn and predictably the place was much quieter but the sun was all wrong for photography. I did however add Great White Egret to the trip list.

My third and final visit was at the end of the day and was much better for photography, with the sun behind me with most of the birds to the east. Also by great good fortune there was nobody else present. I found that although the birds moved away when I arrived, by sitting still for an hour or more, they started to come back and others flew past, reasonably close. In addition to the water birds, this site had Cuckoo and Golden Oriole (only heard) in the trees behind the shore.

Spoonbill Spoonbill
Spoonbill  (click both to enlarge)
Squacco Heron Squacco Heron
Squacco Heron (click to enlarge) Squacco Heron (click to enlarge)
Grey Heron
Purple Heron (click to enlarge) Grey Heron (click to enlarge)

4. Chryssohorafa, Pumping station and eastern shore
Chryssohorafa is the village in which the Limneo hotel is situated and had at least one White Stork nest which I came across by accident early one morning having missed the left turn to the pumping station!  I couldn't resist taking some photos as the light was brilliant.

The pumping station is slightly tricky to get to. You need to turn right on a white gravel track (at GPS 41.180128, 23.213866) that leads off the small road which goes west from the southern edge of the village. Then follow this track round and up onto the embankment but first of all you come to an irrigation channel where it is possible to drive right along the edge for some distance to the north east. I found this fairly late in my stay, but it held several Great Reed Warblers, a Little Bittern and a Pygmy Cormorant. Using the car as I hide I managed to get pics of the first two of these species - as shown below.

The track runs all the way along the eastern embankment, reaching the north east corner of the lake where the river Strimon flows in. This was quite rough and potholed in places but just about OK in an ordinary car. For photography it was only notable for the Bee Eater pic below but towards the northern end, it gave distant views of some of the shallower parts of the lake where all the pelicans congregate. There was also a distant Black Stork, Spoonbills, Glossy Ibis, egrets etc. Further on, the water levels were very low but there were some pools that had the ever wary Pygmy Cormorants. When I returned another day and drove the track from north to south in the afternoon, I saw much same things with the addition of a passing Black Kite.

White Stork Bee Eater
White Stork - note the second bird low on the nest (click to enlarge) Bee Eater
Great Reed Warbler Little Bittern
Great Reed Warbler  (click to enlarge) Little Bittern
Crested Lark
Crested Lark (click to enlarge)

5. Vironia tracks and Strimon river banks
The Vironia tracks are covered by both Mills and Gosney and were of strong interest to me as both stated that Grey headed Woodpecker could be found in this area. So shortly after dawn on my first morning found me heading along what I presumed was track 2a from the Mills book, which started at GPS 41.259287, 23.251094. However the more obvious track that I followed headed north west whereas the track in the Mills book goes more or less west. In the early morning, the number of Nightingales singing (mostly invisibly) along this track was amazing. There were also several Cetti's Warblers and the the exotic song of Hoopoes was quite frequent as well. But the number of visible birds was remarkably few! After a while I reached a point where the track met the railway line (there was a small bridge under the line). At that point (GPS 41.263037,23.23559) I heard what I thought was a Grey headed Woodpecker call and I then managed to not only see it but get moderate photos of it.

This completed my set of all the European woodpeckers (which has needed trips to Austria in 2004, Norway in 2005, Sweden in 2008 and Turkey last year)! With the suggestion of passage Collared Flycatchers in this area (from the Mills book), I also tried track 2b (start at GPS 41.256492, 23.250356) the following morning. There was no sign of any passage migrants, let alone Collared Flycatcher (a general theme of this trip) but I did come across another Grey-headed Woodpecker probably at about GPS 41.258085, 23.223733.

Grey headed Woodpecker Grey headed Woodpecker
Grey headed Woodpeckers (click left to enlarge)

Just to the south of this area, there is a narrow, single track bridge over the river Strimon and both banks to the east of the bridge were good for Bee Eaters (all day) and Hoopoe (at the end of the day). There was also a little marsh on the northern side that had a couple of Spoonbills once.  I had several sessions here, using the car as a hide, trying for photos of all these species, especially the Bee Eaters in flight which were challenging and frustrating in about equal measure. Also in this area there were Golden Orioles singing from the wood to the south of the river (& east of the bridge) mainly in the evening but I didn't go looking for them.

A word of warning though about this area - flocks of animals, with shepherds and dogs, roam freely all around it and can cause some disturbance. One of my Bee Eater photo sessions was curtailed by a herd of buffalo that moved through right underneath the wires that the Bee Eaters were using!

Hoopoe Spoonbill
Bee Eater
Bee Eaters (click upper images to enlarge)

Wider Lake Kerkini sites

 1. Strimon marshes (GPS 41.281667, 23.326552)
This site is covered in the Mills book and was reached along a driveable track that departs from the main road at GPS 41.281667, 23.326552. The river runs along the left side of this track and on the other side, after a few km, there is a small track to the right, which I did not attempt to drive but walked. This led very shortly to a nice area of marshes and pools but without many birds. Best was a fly through Montagu's Harrier and a Marsh Harrier, but there were few other birds. The second marsh, about 500m further on was by a pull in on the right, and had a Black Stork circling when I arrived and a small flock of Spoonbills in residence. There was also the odd Wood Sandpiper, Little Ringed Plover and Black-headed Wagtail about. However this didn't last very long as a huge flock of goats appeared, with the usual dogs and shepherds, and proceeded to storm right through the middle of the best part of the marsh. This seemed to explain the lack of birds at this promising site. There were also flocks of cows roaming around. When I returned briefly on a following day, the same animals were again evident and there were even fewer birds.

Black Stork
Black Stork (click to enlarge)

I don't know if this form of grazing has increased recently. It is something I came across once or twice briefly in the mountains in Turkey, but this seemed to be on a different scale and intensity altogether.

2. Mount Vrontou and Lailias Ski Centre
In the quieter middle part of my last full day, I fancied a change of scene so decided to try Mount Vrontou that is covered briefly in the Mills book and in more detail in the Gosney booklet. It was a good hours drive away, and required navigation through the sizeable town of Serres for which I was extremely glad of the SatNav. Even so, there was a lot of traffic, narrow roads and many double parked cars. At one point a lorry in front of me came to a halt hooting madly because it couldn't get through, so I had to divert off to one side and rely on the SatNav to get me there.

Thereafter it was a pleasant enough scenic but birdless drive up. I started at the "ski centre" at the end of the road which consisted of a few deserted buildings and a grassy slope. A brief wander around produced very little with the only bird of any note being a Tree Pipit, so I headed back down along the loop road with the campsite shown in the Gosney booklet and saw even less! Heading a bit further back down, I tried the Katophyria ski hotel with similar results. Finally I stopped at Gosney site 4 and walked along the track that went to a point overlooking some cliffs for "the best birding on the mountain" but all I found in a brief stay was a Crag Martin and a couple of Red-rumped Swallows. On my return there was distant heavy drumming of a presumed Black Woodpecker but it didn't show, so I decided to head back down to the more birdy environs of Lake Kerkini.

Even in mid April, given the warm to hot weather I enjoyed, there was a fair amount of dragonfly activity at some of the sites, particularly at Strimon Marshes and sections of the eastern embankment of Lake Kerkini. However I didn't have any particularly suitable optics for dragonfly photography, so settled for a few quick snaps using the DO and x1.4 TC. Only the probable White tailed Skimmer (at Strimon Marshes) couldn't be found in the UK. There were several hawkers flying around as well but I never got any shots of them, and I wasn't sure what they were. There was a Common Club-tail sunning itself on the ground at Strimon Marshes which seemed unusual - but maybe they behave differently in southern Europe!  

Scarlet Darter Strimon Marshes White tailed Skimmer Strimon Marshes
Scarlet Darter at Strimon Marshes Probable White tailed Skimmer at Strimon Marshes (despite the lack of a white tail!)
Scarce Blue tailed Damselfly Strimon Marshes Scarce Chaser Lake Kerkini
Scarce Blue tailed Damselfly at Strimon Marshes Scarce Chaser along eastern embankment of Lake Kerkini

And now a couple of sunsets to finish off this trip report:

Sunset over Lake Kerkini after my first boat trip
Sunset over Lake Kerkini after my second boat trip

Accommodation Details

Place Comment
Limneo Hotel, Chryssohorafa This small hotel/guest house was well situated on the eastern side of Lake Kerkini, within easy reach of all the best sites. It was run by the enterprising Nikos Gallios, helped by his parents, and is mainly aimed at birders and understands their needs!

My room was fine and had all the necessary facilities including a small table and chair. It also had a balcony overlooking the nearby square that was notable for views of Red-rumped Swallow nesting in a nearby building. The breakfast was served by his mother and was fine. There are several simple restaurants to chose from in the nearby square but the two I tried were not very welcoming and the food ranged from very poor to just about acceptable depending on my choice. Both were however remarkably economical - dinner with a beer was 10-11 euro at both places. Nikos speaks excellent English but nobody in the restaurants did although there were English menus that gave some idea of what to expect.

As described above, Nikos also runs birder specific boat trips (either for groups or for individuals) on the lake which were very good for photography.

I was originally planning to spend all five nights there, but Nikos had a problem over a tour group (which are a large part of his business) who wanted to arrive a day earlier than expected. Consequently, early in the morning of my fourth day, he asked me if I would mind moving to another place, which he would organise and cover any additional cost, to which I agreed.
Erodios Hotel,  Lithotopos This large hotel was a complete contrast to the Limneo and was where I stayed for my last two nights. It was very well situated on a hillside above the lake, near the dam at the southern end of the lake. The receptionist was friendly and welcoming and spoke good English but nobody else did! The rooms were up a steep hill from the main part of the hotel - the easiest thing was to drive! My room was large, well equipped for a modern tourist hotel with a balcony giving a superb view of the lake. Breakfast outside on the spacious terrace overlooking the lake on my first morning there was probably the highlight of my stay! The whole hotel was oddly deserted with no more than a handful of guests.

The restaurant appeared to specialise in buffalo meat, which I was happy to try (a bit tough). It was a marked improvement on the places in Chryssohorafa but that is not saying very much at all!

If I had had to pay for the room, it was much more expensive than the Limneo (about 100 per night instead of 50 euro at the Limneo) so I think I got a good deal from Nikos - well worth the minor inconvenience of moving.

All pictures copyright Stephen Burch 


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