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LAKE KERKINI: Birds PLUS
with the coast and city of Thessaloniki
18 - 25 May 2019
16 - 23 May 2020
Day 1 (Sa): Arrival & transfer to Kerkini
Day 2 (Su): S. & W. Kerkini, forest & boat ride
Day 3 (Mo): E. Kerkini & jackal walk
Day 4 (Tu): N. Kerkini & nunnery
Day 5 (We): The Iron Castle, wine & caves
Day 6 (Th): Subalpine meadows
Day 7 (Fr): Axios National Park & Thessaloniki
Day 8 (Sa): Departure
Together with the National Park, we've designed a Birds PLUS tour to showcase the very best of the region's birds, but with time to visit local villages and heritage sites, meet farmers and fishermen, and hear from the park staff as to how they manage this incredible place. You'll see the birds in a new way; as part of a complete ecosystem.
As well as Kerkini's lake and mountain habitats, we'll spend a day on the sub-alpine slopes of Mt. Paggaio, a morning by the coast and lagoons outside Thessaloniki, and then an evening in this historic and little-known city. Add in a trip to 11th century hot springs, boat rides, morning walks in jackal territory and fantastic food and local wine, and we think this a birding trip like no other.
Our guide for the trip will be Giorgos Spiridakis, a Greek-Cypriot who has lived in one or the other of Thessaloniki and Kerkini for the last 12 years. A forester by training and a birdwatcher since his teens, he has been guiding in Kerkini now for over 5 years. You can read his full biography here.
Here's a short introduction to Kerkini from the National Park's literature:
"Lake Kerkini is one of ten Ramsar wetlands in Greece, an IBA, SPA and part of Natura 2000. It was formed in 1932 with a dam in the south on the River Strymonas (Struma on some maps) and the creation of two embankments on the east and west. There had been small lakes and marshes here since ancient times, but its flooding and the need in the early 20th century to reclaim land and irrigate fields was likely hastened by the arrival of large numbers of refugees from Asia Minor during the Greek-Turkish population exchanges.
The relatively small depth, the mild slopes at the north and northeast part of the lake, the high productivity due to the periodical flooding and the area's enrichment with nutrients, its position in regard to bird migration routes and the existence of a large wetland from antiquity are factors that contributed to the continuing preservation of the ornithological variety of the area after the creation of the artificial lake.
A new dam in 1982 brings about seasonal fluctuation of the lake level by 4.5m - 5m (from around 31 in autumn to 36 in spring, so that the surface of the lake varies from 5,000 - 7,300 hectares."
Day 1 – Arrive in Thessaloniki
Arrive in Thessaloniki before 16:00 for a 90-minute transfer to Kerkini.
For those wishing to take the late Ryanair flight from Stansted, we'd recommend that you arrive the day before. We can suggest hotels with airport transfers, advise on taxis and suggest places for you to visit during a day in Thessaloniki. It's an incredibly interesting city and worth getting in a day early, or, if not, staying a day after.
For those arriving in Thessaloniki airport (code: SKG) on the morning of Day One, our guide, Giorgos Spiridakis, will meet you there.
We like to share our hotel bookings around the various family-run hotels in Kerkini, so will book one of Alkioni, Erodios or Limneo, and stay there for four nights.
After quickly checking-in, we'll have chance to see what's out and about around the dam at Lithotopos and the canals toward the southern end of the eastern embankment. This will no doubt bring our first glimpse of (or at least hear) Dalmatian pelican, pygmy cormorant, squacco and night heron, little bittern, great reed warbler, golden oriole and cuckoo.
Day 2 – S & W Kerkini, forest & boat
Nb. Days 2, 3 & 4 often alternate depending on weather, especially to ensure we can enjoy the boat ride.
Generally, we start the day along the small rivers at the southern end of Kerkini, south of the dam.
Next, to Kerkini village, which is full of white stork, as are many of the villages, often sharing their nests with Spanish sparrow. We'll take a boat here. The lake is full of water in May and we'll have superb views of the pelicans as we sail out onto the lake. We'll finish inside the flooded forest, which is home to pygmy cormorant, grey, squacco and night heron, great and little egret, glossy ibis and spoonbill.
Lunch (or possibly dinner) will be by the church and monastery of Ay. Yorgos (St. George). Depending on his schedule we hope to be shown around by the remaining monk. As well as great views out over the lake, we're in the forest home of black stork and eagle owl.
Dinner is usually back at the hotel, or in a tavern very close by.
All in all, it should be a day to add various raptors, black stork, masked shrike, spoonbills and olive-tree warbler
South of Kerkini
Entrance to flooded forest
Day 3 – Eastern Kerkini & jackal walk
An early start today as we try for golden jackal. We'll place trail cameras ahead of your visit and expect to at the very least see them on camera. There's a good chance of hearing jackal during your stay, and, if we get out early, hunker down and keep quiet, there's a chance of seeing them too.
As well as trying for jackal, staying quiet in the river forest will allow good bird sightings, hopefully nightingale and golden oriole.
Next, we'll walk along another Kerkini highlight: the raised eastern embankment. From here we'll enjoy great views of species no doubt seen the day before on the boat, but from solid ground, on which tripods can be settled.
The eastern embankment is also home to a few water buffalo farms. We'll visit one of their owners for a chat and bring some packed lunches so that you can continue to enjoy the outdoors whilst we eat and have a drink.
The middle of the day can get a touch warm now and again in May, creeping toward the 25-degree mark. This being Birds PLUS and us wanting you to enjoy a relaxing birding break, we may return to the hotel for an hour or two's break, especially as we have an early start this morning for jackals. Those who'd rather stay out though, can still bird the river forests and canals around the hotel with our guide.
In the late afternoon/ early evening we will visit the north-east. There are marshes as well as the flooded forest that we saw by boat. As well as the herons, ibis, spoonbills and other water birds that we'll have seen over previous days, we hope for stone curlew, penduline tit, crane and raptors such as lesser spotted eagle and Eleonora’s falcon. As the sun sets we'll sit down somewhere and try again for jackal.
Dinner at the hotel or in a tavern in the same village as the hotel.
Day 4 – Northern Kerkini & nunnery
We start the day on the lake again, on the northern shores, where the park built artificial breeding platforms for pelicans and tern. There are huge numbers of crested grebe here, great reed warbler and it's also a spot for purple heron.
Then there's a change of scenery from the lake. For midday, we'll move north and onto the low slopes, where agricultural land gives way to forest. We'll be looking out for sombre tit, Syrian and maybe grey-headed woodpecker.
On the edge of the forest is a nunnery (website only in Greek: http://www.timiosprodromos.gr), which was recently restored using traditional materials and also offers great views over Kerkini.
After a lunch break at a train station-cum-cafe, we'll continue on the slopes north of the lake and visit an old quarry for black-headed bunting, subalpine warbler and black-eared wheatear, red-backed, woodchat and lesser grey shrike. Quarries also mean (Western) rock nuthatch too. And here, as on the western side of Kerkini are eagle owl, but seeing one or two from these pairs takes a bit of luck of course as do the golden eagles.
We finish a fairly long day out in the field with a soak in geothermic waters by the Bulgarian border. A bath has existed here since Byzantine times in the 10th-century, and if you bring your swimming costume, both sexes can enjoy a soak (http://www.hamamagistro.gr/baths - again, just in Greek, but you can see the photos). There are also some modern baths that are private, so after you book we'll ask if you'd prefer one of these to yourself. It's the same water, just not in the 1,000 year old building.
Dinner is a mix of meze and the local firewater at a friend's small tavern by the border.
1,000 year old hammam
Day 5 – the Iron Castle, wine & caves
The town of Sidherokastro - Iron Castle - has a long history, with Paleolithic ruins and references in the works of Homer and Herodotus. Indeed, the municipality of Sintiki, in which Siderokastro belongs, is named after the Sintian tribe, known as both pirates and Thracians in ancient times, who are believed to be from the island of Limnos.
The town's Byzantine castle, from which it takes its name, was built by Basil II (958-1025), famed for finally defeating the Bulgarian empire.
From 1381 Siderokastro and the wider region was part of the Ottoman empire, until a brief spell under Bulgarian control during the Balkan Wars. Lying on the Strymonas and Krousovitis rivers, it lies at a physical entrance between the modern states of Bulgaria and Greece, and when nearby Fort Roupel fell in April 1941, it was occupied by the Axis until 1944.
Similar to all of the Serres and Kerkini region, the inhabitants are a blend of indigenous people, Vlachs and the descendants of Greek refugees from Melnik, Bulgaria in 1913 and Pontics, Greeks and Christians from Asia Minor after the Greco-Turkish Wars and subsequent population exchanges.
And it's a great place for nature, with dry grasslands, crags and valleys offering more chances for rock nuthatch, blue rock thrush, rollers, bee-eaters and hoopoe. The subalpine warbler should be a given, but also shares the habitat with (easter) orphean and Sardinian warbler, plus the rather more difficult masked shrike. From raptors, there are short-toed eagles, long-legged buzzards and Levant sparrowhawk as well as another chance for golden eagle and maybe lesser kestrel.
After a busy morning of birds and castles, we'll take a well-earned break at one of the region's excellent wineries. The spit-bucket is an option, as you are on holiday after all. We won't attempt to walk off the wine and cheese but instead, drive to the spectacular Alistrati cave, a contender for the Gate to Hades used by Pluto when he kidnapped Persephone. Myths aside, some of the stalagmites are 35m high.
From the cave, it's a short drive to our next hotel, under Mt Paggaio, where we'll stay for 2 nights.
Basil II's 'Iron Castle'
Day 6 – Mt. Paggaio - above 1,600m
Today needs an early-ish start so that we can drive up the mountain and have a chance on the subalpine meadows to see the birds before it's too warm. We'll take a packed lunch though and spend the morning there, hoping for rock thrush, water pipit, ortolan bunting, alpine chough and hopefully, rock partridge. There'll be some cracking views too.
After lunch we'll go back to the hotel for a rest and an afternoon off. Anyone with energy though could convince us to take them for a late afternoon stroll on the lower slopes.
Day 7 – Kalochori lagoon & Thessaloniki
After breakfast, we'll meander past Thessaloniki and enter the Axios Delta National Park and, specifically, the Kalochori coastal lagoon. This allows us the opportunity to see some coastal species, but also some migrating birds that don't stop at Kerkini. So eyes peeled for stone curlew, waders, Mediterranean gull and Caspian tern.
It's also home to a small population of ground squirrel, the souslik.
We'll finish with a visit to an animal rescue centre, Actions for Wild Animals. Manned 24/7 by volunteers they rely 100% on donations, yet they are the only wild animal welfare centre in northern Greece.
After lunch in Kalochori we'll drive to our final hotel in Thessaloniki, before spending the late afternoon & evening in the atmospheric Upper Town of Thessaloniki.
Thessaloniki from the castle
Day 8 – Thessaloniki & the aerodrome
The tour finishes today after breakfast, but we'll transfer you to the airport for any morning flights. Otherwise you're free to enjoy this superb city, best described in Mark Mazower's 'Salonica, City of Ghosts: Christians, Muslims and Jews'. Or just put your feet up before your flight home.