Secrets of Prespa and Ohrid: July 2018
A customised tour for a couple of dragonfly enthusiasts and lovers of all things nature. Whilst more or less following the usual route of our Secrets of Prespa and Ohrid tour, we added in more stops at a variety of wet habitats, hoping to see something unusual or at least get an idea of the dragonflies found in these parts.
Day One - Friday, 29 June
A daytime arrival into Thessaloniki brought the Balkan Tracks fly-by welcome committee of a solo purple heron over the runway. Whilst difficult and expensive to arrange, no cost was spared.
Then, completely unexpected, but equally enjoyable, was the aerial red carpet rolled out by a group of, KG estimated, 40 swift, which were flying around the airport roof. Whether they were feeding or actually nesting there, I’m not sure.
From the airport, we drove straight to the Pefka Hotel (pefka being pine, of which the park opposite was full of), where we checked in and then walked 5 minutes down the road for dinner at Vila Luna. High up as we were, in the mountain-side suburb of Panorama, the restaurant provided super views over Thessaloniki and the Thermaikos Gulf. We enjoyed some Greek cheeses and salads, albeit with unusual twists on the dressings, then elected for the rather non-Hellenic options of burgers and pizza. We did though start the trip off with a Greek red wine, Paranga, which is from the region of Naoussa, between Thessaloniki to Prespa.
View from Vila Luna over Thessaloniki
Walking back to the hotel at night we were very lucky to have a nightjar or four feeding over the streetlights. We watched them for a good 15 minutes as they flew between the pines in the park and the streetlights. Best of all we were able to hear them sing, call and clap.
Day Two - Saturday, 30 June
Thessaloniki to Prespa
Today was, on paper, a transit day to Prespa, but rather than take the motorway we made a day of it and enjoyed the scenic old road through the mountains and plains of northern Greece.
The first delights of the trip though were spotted outside the hotel, as we were packing the car. A hummingbird hawk moth was right next to us, and what JG believed was a small copper. In the trees and skies were house martin, barn swallow, serin, collared dove, magpie and starlings.
We weren’t far from the hotel when we stopped for petrol and to collect some snacks. KG waited outside and quickly added tree sparrows and red-rumped swallow. JG and Chris added decaf coffee and cereal bars, whilst admiring the view over the city and gulf to Mt Olympus.
Mt Olympus. Seen across the Thermaic Gulf from Panorama, with the airport just in front.
Leaving Thessaloniki, we started on our way to lunch with a beekeeper via planned stops at the Agras reservoir and wetland. Not soon out of Thessaloniki, on the road that crosses the Axios river, Chris saw a stork-like silhouette in the sky. Pulling over we were pleased to discover it was a black stork and it circled in close to us. Whilst there we decided to have a mosey around the verge and nearby fields. KG identified male and female white-legged damselfly near the car, and possibly blue-tailed too (in my notes I have a question mark next to the latter, and I don't have a photo). Some time was spent trying to ID a male hawker on patrol, which proved difficult, but was marked down as a male Southern migrant, which wasn’t seen again until a question mark spotting at the stream on Day Six (in Greece, but on the way to the Albanian border). Around the same stretch, and behaving more obligingly, was a black-tailed skimmer. Before getting back into the car, June also noted an eastern bath white, but one with a very yellow underwing.
Continuing along the road, we soon made a short stop by an unnamed and unmarked Macedonian burial tomb. The ancient Macedonians had their first capital at Aigae (today on the map as Vergina, near Nauossa, where the wine the night before comes from), being as it was in those days, by the sea. By the time of Phillip II and his son, Alexander, the capital had moved to Pella, close to where we were driving, and on a road that has a good three or four tombs along it from Thessaloniki to Pella. The one we stopped at was fenced off and closed, but we stopped to have a look at the tomb from outside. We also got our first taste of the wildflower variety found everywhere in this part of the world. Whilst the climate certainly helps, no councils here pay for each and every roadside verge and piece of communal land to be ‘kept tidy’ and strimmed to the soil (not that it’s intentional, you understand, but a welcome silver lining nevertheless). Amongst what J and K ID’d as bear's breeches, we had a swallowtail fly by briefly, another eastern bath white stayed longer and a female red-veined darter was in the vicinity. Getting back into the car there was also a kestrel species in the air, but we weren’t able to say whether it was common or lesser.
Our first stop at Agras
Moving on to Agras and the road started climbing through apple and cherry orchards. We first stopped in the car park of a closed café. Coot were on the water and a cuckoo was calling, which was great to hear given that it was the end of June. K spotted a comma and we all saw a clouded yellow, as well as some unidentified blues. Just by the car park, white-legged damselflies were mating and a blue-tailed damselfly was noted just before J spotted a slow worm in the grass. A scarlet darter was next, as we also noticed the call of marsh frog and K heard Cetti’s warbler. Moving around the corner of the café, still by the water but next to large reeds, a lesser emperor was patrolling and there were good numbers of small red-eyed together with an emperor and a female scare chaser.
Driving west around the southern shore of Agras, goldfinch were seen, before we pulled up at some beehives slightly above the lake, where K also heard greenfinch and black cap. He also put a question mark next to another female scarlet darter.
A little bit further on was a small wood with an equally small church. We parked up and went to explore the reed beds by the side of the lake. Song thrush and golden oriole were singing and great reed warbler were jumping around. Variable damselfly (clocked near some scarlet pimpernel) and ruddy darter were new additions for the list, as well as more individuals of scarce chaser and lesser emperor. As we got to the end of the little orchard one of us spotted a buzzard chick in its nest on a nearby tree.
Leaving Agras it was another 45-minute drive along and past the imposing mountain ranges that run east-west along Greece’s northern border. We arrived for lunch in the village of Kato Kleines, where we met Haris, a beekeeper and mushroom collector. He’d laid out a super lunch for us on his balcony, with salads from his garden and some freshly collected and fried mushrooms. Desert was yoghurt topped with a sauce made from his own berries.
Haris then explained his mushroom and herb drying facilities, before coffees were served in the garden during a demonstration of his friendly bees. As well as two scarce swallowtails in the garden, K also pondered as to whether there was an alarm call from a nightingale.
With full stomachs, we left Kato Kleines to take the road up through the Kleines valley towards the ski-resort of Vigla and then into Prespa. The river had a decent amount of water still in it for July, after the wet spring we had, and it cut through good beech forest and the occasional grazing pasture. We left the car and crossed the river to explore around an old fish farm. Stepping out of the car there was a purple dash, which we saw later again and it did indeed turn out to be a purple emperor. A marbled white, one of many, was stuck in a spider’s web and surrounded by map and silver-washed fritillaries. A real treat were brown bear footprints in the muddy path, and as K bent down to photograph something, a Camberwell beauty landed on his hat, which he wasn’t allowed to try to see until we’d taken dozens of photos. The first beautiful demoiselle were spotted too.
Back in the car and out of the forest, we arrived in the near-deserted and forgotten town (now village) of Akritas. It was previously known as Buf, which no doubt shares linguistic roots with Bufo, and an owl being the town’s emblem). Before WWII and the Greek Civil War (1945-49), Arkitas had over 3,000 people. The mountains and plains were major battlegrounds in the civil war and many of the towns and villages were evacuated. We heard how economic, political and social reasons meant many of the inhabitants didn’t return to their villages, and today maybe only 50 people live here.
The road continued up to the ski station of Vigla (not many expect Greece to have ski centres) before our first sight of the Prespa lakes from the Prevali mountain pass, where we stopped for the view and some photos. We continued down the other side, into the Prespa basin. At the junction for Ayios Yermanos, near the petrol station, was the first of the trip’s marsh harrier and had to stop for a Hermann’s tortoise.
Arriving in the mountain village of Ayios Yermanos we checked in to a small, family run guesthouse, To Petrino (‘The Stony’, from the local stone that it’s made of). We walked down to the village square for dinner, which included soutzoukakia (kofte in Turkey and many parts of the Balkans. Effectively long-ish meatballs), local Florinella cheese (sort of like a halloumi) and freshly foraged and boiled weeds with lemon. J had a glass of house wine and K tried a new Greek lager called Eza.
Day Three - Sunday, 1 July
Greek side of Prespa
Today was spent in the area between the two lakes, Great and Lesser Prespa, with us ending up on the island in the small lake.
K had a morning walk and noted down the calls of woodlark. We then drove down to the lake and started to cross the isthmus. Three turtle doves on the power lines were our first notable sighting of the day, although mention should be made for the hooded crows, that were seen in number most days. Another power line favourite were a 100 plus starling.
Atop of many mullein (Verbascum sp.) were a few red-backed shrike, with one causing confusion as to whether it could have been a juvenile or female. The first of the trip’s corn bunting was also seen.
Whilst it was July, we were fortunate that Prespa had seen an extremely wet spring. Unlike the UK’s sixty days without rain, northern Greece saw rain most days from May through until the end of June. That meant squacco heron and other birds could still be spotted from the roadside in wet meadows as we drove by, which we added to more red-backed shrike, woodlark, crested lark feeding on the tarmac, and cormorants, pygmy cormorants, egret and lesser egret flying back and forth over the road, moving from lake to lake.
Arriving at the eastern edge of the lakes we stopped near the sluice gate that controls the water level of Lesser Prespa, and we set out to explore the edges of the wide channel to the south of it. By the road, there was a small, still ‘pond’ on the edge of the road. It looked like great habitat although was a touch disappointing. Still, it threw up a recently emerged darter, a blue-tailed damselfly and a male broad scarlet.
Next we took a circular walk along the northern end of the western lagoon, which again, wasn’t as productive as we’d hoped for Odonata because we couldn’t get close enough to water. Still, amongst the marsh woundwort and calls of bee-eater and golden oriole, we came across southern darter, ruddy darter and green-eyed hooktail, mostly female if I noted that down correctly. Nearer the water’s edge (of one of the lagoons in the isthmus), a male broad scarlet was seen. In amongst a couple of planted trees going back to the car, there was also a possible green-eyed hawker. On our way back we stopped by a field of beans (Prespa’s famous beans) and K noted a female small red-eyed damselfly.
To give a better idea of Prespa from an elevated position, we drove a little up the hill above the channel and sluice gate. Common blue (an immature) was seen for the first time and June saw a darter species. A jay was spotted, as were brimstone and one of the graylings.
Lunch was next and we stopped at the small tavern near the channel, where we had a light lunch of pan-fried lake fish and a green salad.
After eating we crossed the road to a small jetty, which was quite a good spot, holding 5+ small red-eyed, many bluetail, one or maybe two downy emerald patrolling, a very mature scarce chaser, male and female emperor and scarlet darter, a fly-by by a lesser emperor and half a dozen or so gigantic carp constantly swimming around.
Video of Lesser Prespa's carp
Walking over the main road we took our first visit to the shores of Great Prespa. Sand martin were flying around the cliffs and there was a distant eagle species. Our first sighting of southern emerald damselfly, and possibly male and female variable again.
Heading east, we came to sandy grassland and scrub, a Natura 2000 priority habitat, and walked down a dirt road that led to the river mouth into Lake Great Prespa. A dozen or so black-headed gull were on the sandbank, which were at one stage scared off by a marsh harrier, and a bit closer to us, redshank, white wagtail and, always a pleasure, a yellow wagtail feldegg. This one was sat very close to us, preening its feathers. Out on the lake, great-crested grebe were with young, and K also noted the calls of tern, Cetti warbler and penduline tit. We stopped across from a penduline tit nest, hanging from a willow tree, and then we saw one in a tree opposite it.
We set off for the last stop of the day, the island of Ayios Achillios on Lake Lesser Prespa. The road climbs above it and we stopped for the view to see a female emperor, then a female lesser emperor, which caught something and did five somersaults right in front of us, over the asphalt.
The island of Ayios Achillios is connected to the mainland by a 700m floating footbridge, built for the millennium celebrations in, surprisingly, late 1999. We walked along it slowly, past the reed beds that accompany it much of the way. Downy emerald was spotted again, with another unidentified hawker. A swan was seen very close by, wild here and one of the few places in Greece where they breed. Two more squaccos were in the water, together with little grebe and garganey.
The island is famous as the short-lived capital of Tsar Samuel, scourge of the Byzantine Empire in the late 10th century. He built a palace here along with a cathedral to house the bones of St. Achillios, the ruins of which stand today, and we stopped by to also admire the many lizards climbing in and out of the walls.
Dinner was on the lovely terrace area at the island’s tavern, where we shared some delicious food that I neglected to jot down, and now can’t remember. Lovely though, and it was a birthday meal too for J!
Day Four - Monday, 2 July
Greek side of Prespa
The whole of today was spent on the western side of Greek Prespa, which is mostly limestone and forested by juniper and oak. Driving again over the isthmus, we traversed a small peak and came down on the other side in the fishing village of Psaradhes, where a marsh harrier was gliding over the reed beds. They jetty was full of pelicans, although mostly Dalmatian, of which Prespa has the world’s largest breeding colony. Grey heron were amongst both cormorant species and a squabble of black-headed gulls.
Before getting on a boat, a black-tailed skimmer had just emerged on the jetty. After admiring it and some more little grebe, we climbed aboard the power boat and skirted along the coast by both pelican and cormorant species, with superb views of them perching on the shores and flying low over the waters. Almost close enough to touch, and from this distance, we really get an idea of just how large the pelican is. Europe’s largest wingspan at 2.5 – 3m. It’s also a good place to gauge the difference in size between the two cormorant species too. Up on the cliffs we also had the lovely blue rock thrush (definitely a female and maybe a male too) and the lake was full of great-crested grebe and their young.
As well as the birds, we stopped to see fresco paintings of Mary painted into the cliffs, and to the side, a small cave and the remains of a small building. A hermit or two would’ve lived here 6 centuries ago, commuting between this and other caves that we were going to stop at over the next hour. The caves used to be at lake level, but since the 1950s we saw how the water had dropped 6 metres.
Stopping at a jetty near one of the 15th century churches we found dozens of emerging damselflies, some of which were damaged, and a dragonfly nymph’s exoskeleton. Walking along the pebbled beach there were multiple male hooktails, as well as a female, black-tailed skimmer out on the water, a blue-eye damselfly, bluetails and an unidentified hawker flying overhead.
We finished near to the Albania border, where K saw goosander from the boat, and moored up to an old jetty next to a large cave, climbing the 100 or so steps up to the largest hermit community, which is estimated to have housed 20 something monks, and with the remains dated to the 15th century. Whilst we could see the remains of living quarters, the only thing that remains is the small chapel, with its incredible wall and ceiling paintings inside.
Returning to the boat we had a walk along the beach and added small red-eyed, scarlet darter and more black-tailed skimmer. And then once back on dry land by the village, we explored the bay to the right of the jetty, where there was a possible southern hawker, a few male scarlet darter, bluetails, a newly emerged darter (possibly ruddy), a male emperor and (possibly) a female hooktail.
Jumping forward to the 20th century, Yermanos, our boatman, has witnessed some of the difficult histories that intertwine with the phenomenal nature on display in Prespa. We stopped at his tavern for a drink and some water, where we saw photos of the bare slopes above the village from before the war, and the lake waters coming right up to the houses, which moored the boats from the verandas.
Lunch was packed today, from the tavern that we ate at the previous night. We took these up onto Mt Devas. Driving up the dirt road this time, we saw our first hoopoe as soon as we left the tarmac. As donkeys are used by the loggers to bring trunks out, there was poo everywhere, which gave us a great display of graylings, large tortoiseshell, red admiral and silver-washed fritillary. Continuing higher up and Chris pointed out the many places where wild boar had torn up the grass foraging, and we noticed the many prints of boar, marten, roe deer and birds in the mud around puddles. One puddle also had a nice selection of the blood red Lilium carniolicum.
Arriving at an opening, we left the car and had our packed lunches under a tree, amongst the humming cicada and, at 1,100m (3,600ft) asl, a few dragonflies. We took a walk through the juniper forests to a lookout point over the isthmus, Lesser Prespa lake and the island of Ayios Achillios. Along the way we had various tit species calling, a male emperor, female black-tailed skimmer, immature male ruddy darter, a swallowtail and signs of bears turning large rocks for ants and soil turned over by wild boar.
For dinner, we were back at Nikos’s tavern, where today he served up burgers made of local black pig and water buffalo. Moving away from the house wine, Nikos stocks reds and whites from Ktima Alfa, a well-known winery near Florina, the same area around which we’d visit the next day.
Day Five - Tuesday, 3 July
Greek side of Prespa
Today we had another look at Lake Lesser Prespa, but this time by boat with Yiorgos, a fisherman from the island of Ayios Achillios, and also a trained psychiatrist. Before we got on the boat, on parking the car near the reed beds, we spotted male and females of both variable and bluetails, and also a teneral scarlet darter.
On the boat, we slowly worked around the edges of various reed beds near the floating bridge. At the first stop, there were plenty of male broad scarlet and females egg laying, as well as solitary small red-eyed and lesser emperor. We also got a few quick glimpses of bearded reedling and night heron as we sailed around, and near the bridge was a huge colony of pygmy cormorants, killing the reeds with their droppings.
Yiorgos also turned out to have excellent eyes and was soon spotting species. He noticed a scare chaser, which was quickly followed by a downy emerald. We then came out by large collection of water lilies, which held a male bluetail and an immature violet female. Yiorgos then got first eyes on a green-eyed Norfolk hawker, and together we saw more black-tailed skimmers, downy emeralds, scarlet darters and lesser emperors.
Crossing the bridge, we went to the shore to the west. No new species for the trip here, although the first emperor of the day was patrolling, chasing off others.
For the afternoon we decided to explore the abandoned terraces, orchards and vineyards between the three river forests around Ayios Yermanos. Having just left the village, Keith spotted a hawfinch and within metres, there were marbled whites and fritillaries everywhere, including our first Queen of Spain. There was also a fly-by of what flew like a woodpecker, but was very yellow on sight. A golden oriole or a green woodpecker?
Moving on, there was a small ford with green-eyed hooktail, then further up a black-veined white and Keith saw a forester moth. We moved into the riverine forest proper, where we stopped, out of the sun, for our packed lunch. A spot that was full of orchids.
Before meeting the dirt road, we came out of the small river forest and into an opening, where there was a rather sizeable bear poo. Once on the road, Chris also pointed out the claw marks in the wooden electricity pylons, some at more than 2 metres from the floor.
The dirt road had a couple of spots full of blues puddling, which we’d seen on other days, but not in this number, and beautiful demoiselle were seen at some point on the walk back. Just as we were outside the village we were welcomed back by a very vocal and proximate jay.
Driving to the main river to the north of Ayios Yermanos, we had a look along the river but there was far too much water in it after the unusually heavy rains of spring. Still, as we were giving in for the day, we stopped at a flush just above the village, by some stables, and whilst at first we saw over 10 beautiful demoiselle, we then noticed two-toothed goldenring on patrol, two of them, and were able to get some decent enough photographs.
Such was the success of Nikos’s bean soup and Mylos red wine, that we returned for another helping.