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LAKE KERKINI: Birds PLUS
with neighbouring Serres,
Kalochori & Thessaloniki
20 - 27 January 2019
18- 26 January 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
Day 6 (Th): Serres & Alistrati cave
Day 7 (Fr): Kalochori lagoon & 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 IN WINTER, 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 around Serres and the Strymonas river valley with visits to a winery and archaeological sites, and finally 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.
People don't expect it, but winter here will likely be as cold as northern Europe. Bring layers and layers and layers. Good boots, thick socks, great hats and a couple of pairs of gloves.
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 the 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 Dalmatian pelican and pygmy cormorant. White pelican are in fewer numbers in winter, but are possible, as are Caspian tern, with an outside chance of red-crested pochard, depending on the severity or warmth of winter.
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, from where we'll take a short boat ride. The lake level is lower in winter, but we'll still manage superb views of the Dalmatian pelicans with their orange-red lower mandibles. Occasionally little gull are seen.
We'll stop for a coffee and maybe a tsipuro (a clear spirit distilled from red wine) with the boatman and hear about the life of a Kerkini fisherman then and now.
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 eagle owl, hawfinch, sombre tit, cirl and rock bunting, which we'll continue to explore the remainder of the afternoon.
As the light fades will move to the western embankment, where there's good light over the lake and therefore often good views over the flamingos. It must be said that whether they are at a good distance for photography depends on the precipitation during autumn and winter, as the lake is shallow and the water's edge can move a lot year on year.
We'll also be scanning the fields for mammal activity, as the meadows are a good place to see fox and wildcat.
Dinner is usually back at the hotel, or in a tavern very close by.
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.
Next, we'll walk along another Kerkini highlight: the raised eastern embankment. From here we'll enjoy great views of the region's water birds, including the very special lesser white-fronted goose alongside whooper and Bewick swans. Fingers crossed for golden eagles in the skies.
The eastern embankment is also home to a few water buffalo farms. We'll visit one of their owners for a chat and a mug of coffee before heading indoors somewhere close for lunch.
After lunch, we'll bird the river forests, canals and fields around the Strymonas for passerines, crested lark, corn bunting, yellowhammer, thrushes, fieldfare and when it's quite cold, redwing too. Merlin and peregrine falcon are also possible.
As the sun sets we'll check a camera for jackal and then sit down somewhere and try again to see one in the flesh. When we're walking and birding we keep warm, but waiting for mammals in winter is a chillier job, even if it's just for twenty minutes at dusk. Keep some extra thermal layers in your rucsac. Thermal inserts for gloves or oversized ski gloves to go over the top of your normal gloves are good ideas too.
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 Dalmatian pelicans, which have bred here since 2003. Cranes are possible amongst the white-fronted geese, lapwing and avocet. Occasionally the lesser white-fronted geese are seen from here.
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 more sombre tit, rock and cirl bunting, Syrian and maybe the grey-headed woodpecker. Black woodpecker is generally higher up, but we may hear it, and also see goshawk.
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.
Lunch will be inside a traditional train station-cum-cafe, which also does a nice line in Greek beers not found in most taverns and bars.
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 (tsipuro) at a friend's small tavern by the border.
1,000 year old hammam
Day 5 – the Iron Castle & wine
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 were 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, the area was occupied by the Axis until 1944.
Similar to all of the Serres and Kerkini region, the inhabitants are a blend of Slavophones (or whose parents or grandparents were), 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 of plane tree offering more chances for rock nuthatch. Blue rock thrush and crag martin are seen some winters.
We'll stop somewhere for lunch in and around Sidherokastro before continuing up the valley.
After a busy day of birds and castles, we'll take a well-earned break for dinner at one of the region's excellent wineries. The spit-bucket is an option, as you are on holiday after all.
Basil II's 'Iron Castle'
Day 6 – Serres & Alistrati
We'll leave Kerkini this morning and move slightly east toward the town of Serres. A mix of fields, valleys and rocky sites brings chances of long-legged buzzard, hen harrier, calandra lark and lanner falcon. A drive up toward the monastery of John the Baptist also takes us to rock partridge habitat, but we'd need some seriously good luck to see this shy bird.
Lunch will be at another winery (oh the torture) before we visit the Alistrati cave.
Serres itself is an interesting little town, with Herodotus mentioning it in 5 BC, although an ancient city was built around 2,000BC, before the Trojan War. During Roman times it was an important town in the Roman province of Macedonia. During Byzantine times a fortress was built, which we will visit for a break and the panoramic views. Five centuries of Ottoman rule followed, and during our short tour of the town, we'll see the bedesten and the two mosques.
The Alistrati cave is just outside Serres and is a contender for the Gate to Hades used by Pluto when he kidnapped Persephone. Myths aside, some of the stalagmites are 35m high.
Back in Serres, the local Roumbos family are famous for their secret recipe for akanes, a variety of loukoumi (what is often translated as Turkish delight in the north of Europe) that is only made in Serres and is flavoured with goats milk butter and not floral essences. As with the local wine, a stop is required to sample it.
13th C church of St. George,
Inside the Alistrati cave
Zincirli mosque, Serres
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 waders and waterfowl, including black-necked grebe, oystercatcher, greenshank, spotted redshank, plovers, avocet, curlew, turnstone, slender-billed gull and maybe Mediterranean gull..
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.