Prespa and Kerkini: 16-24 September 2018
A customised tour for a group of four who asked for a relaxed mix of birding, strolls, good food and wine-tasting, with four days in Prespa and four in Kerkini.
Yiannis Theodoropoulos, Giorgos Spiridakis, Christopher Mounsey.
Day One - Sunday, 16 September
Thessaloniki to Prespa
Yiannis and Chris were at the airport to meet the group's lunchtime flight and we set off immediately for Prespa. From the minibus, PM spotted little egrets along the Axios river, which were then seen by all. Hooded crows and house sparrows were spotted at various stages too.
Driving along the motorway, Yiannis explained about the large fences along the side and their effects first on preventing collisions with northern Greece’s bear population, then the issues these fences can cause by fragmenting a bear’s favourite haunts. As the road started to ascend to Prespa, he pointed out how the roadside warning signs added silhouettes of wolves alongside those of bears.
Just before sunset we arrived at the gateway to Prespa and stopped for a quick photo, before carrying on along the eastern side of the lake and another viewpoint stop. From here, Yiannis pointed out the two islands in Lake Lesser Prespa.
A few minutes later we were climbing up to the village of Ayios Yermanos, our base for the next four nights, and at 1,050m a.s.l. (3,445ft), just a touch higher than Scafell Pike, England's highest peak. We quickly checked into our guesthouse, before walking down to the square for dinner in a local tavern. Here we had a selection of meze, including moussaka, our first (of many) grilled aubergine and garlic dishes, Florinella (a local cheese from Florina, similar to halloumi) and a mixed salad. Washed down with local red table wine and a few Alpha beers.
Day Two - Monday, 17 September
Thessaloniki to Prespa
An early start took us birding on the shores of Lake Great Prespa. We arrived as the sun was rising and the birds began singing. Long-tailed tits, blackbirds, robins and great tits were fluttering around the trees. As the light improved willow warbler were seen in nearby bushes, and a whinchat was ticked off whilst looking out at hooded crows on the power lines.
Standing out prominently were half a dozen spurge hawk moth caterpillars (Hyles euphorbiae).
As we walked back, a common buzzard left the skyline and went over the forest. We followed its direction toward the lakeshore, which was a real bonanza for birds. The delights started with a hobby flying overhead, and some saw a kingfisher zoom past the reeds that hosted spotted flycatcher, sedge and reed warbler, while out on the sandbanks were a mix of white and yellow wagtails, including a single grey wagtail, and one solitary wood sandpiper. As we moved around two or three pygmy cormorants came to the lakeshore, amongst black-headed and yellow-legged gulls, with grey heron on the far shore.
A real pleasure was the sight of a good number of bearded reedlings, who put on a great show in nearby reeds.
Walking back to the minibus along the river shore we added blackcap and stopped awhile to see a penduline tit nest and discuss their mating exploits. Just before getting into the bus, we saw a lesser whitethroat and we heard a few woodpeckers calling, eventually clocking a great spotted woodpecker.
As we drove back for breakfast, we had a quick look at starlings and barn swallows on the power lines and spotted a few red-rumped swallows flying around. Another whinchat was sat on a post, a collared dove was noted, PM saw a jay and as we turned the van onto the road a group of tree sparrows were flickering around the tarmac and brambles.
Our host is famous for her breakfasts, which today included trachanas (sort of a porridge made with flour rather than oats), French toast, boiled eggs and filo pastry with feta and leek. And before breakfast, Paul added house martin.
We started out south of the lake, but before getting there we stopped by the roadside to watch some 25+ Dalmatian pelican circling in the thermals, no doubt gathering height to leave Prespa for fishing somewhere other than Lake Lesser Prespa. Back in the minibus, we continued south, parked the minibus and started a trail along the southern shores of Lesser Prespa, walking toward the border with Albania.
Straight out of the car, AM and VP spotted some extremely blue blues as well as an unknown fritillary, whilst out on the lake were coots and our first great white pelican, albeit at some distance. The first stop on the trail brought us a good, long sighting of a green woodpecker against the grey rock. We continued around the lake, seeing a number of green lizards, Erhard's wall lizards and swallowtail butterflies fluttering by.
Yiannis spotted a sombre tit, which isn’t an easy bird to see at this time of year in Prespa. And just after were our first red-backed shrikes, which both struck the group as juveniles rather than females. Cirl and corn bunting were also seen in the trees, and we went close to the lake to see some extensive foraging by wild boar.
The path also had countless huge rocks that had been turned over by bears looking for bugs and roots. And in the depths of the forest, a black woodpecker was heard – although sadly not seen - calling from the wooded hillside. PP also noted a large scat full of hair and a few bones, which could well have been from a wolf, although one can’t rule out sheepdog completely.
We parked ourselves on the veranda of a tavern by Lake Lesser Prespa, run by Zenia and her husband Kyriakos, who served us a few meze with a twist, including a black bean salad, grilled red peppers, a stir-fried pork dish, potato salad, myzithra cheese and grated beetroot together with grated apple, olive oil and a touch of vinegar.
During and after lunch, a kingfisher, a dozen pygmy cormorants, coots, as well as mallards and a jackdaw, were spotted from our table.
Following a long lunch there was only time for a short walk in the oak forests below a tiny church on a hill. There, we recorded for the first time chiffchaff, blue tits and chaffinches.
In the evening we visited Nikos and his recently restored village coffee shop and distillery, which was first run by his grandfather. Like many families in the countryside, Nikos’s moved to Athens in the 70s, where he was then born and grew up. His family also taught him how to make tsipuro, known elsewhere as ‘raki’ or ‘grappa’ and he gave us a demonstration of the old stills and how they made the tsipuro. We spoke a little of his family’s history, as the Greeks of what is now the western and Black Sea coasts of Turkey were expelled in a huge Greek-Turkish population exchange. A sad history, but one we were able to listen to over local meze, starting with pickled veg, then chard and salads from his garden, local cheese and fassoladha, a bean soup made with the small, white Prespa bean.
Day Three - Tuesday, 18 September
In an attempt to see one of Prespa’s shy and secretive hazel grouses, we took an early morning drive to the top of the cliffs overlooking Great Prespa. In the sparser forest, we left the minibus and crept quietly along the dirt road. Whilst the infamous grouse remained elusive, a blackbird and a couple of jays were seen, with PM hearing marsh tit. We also walked over some old bear faeces, well worn by the weather but with the distinctive stones from wild cherry.
Driving down to the fishing village of Psaradhes on our way back to breakfast, another red-backed shrike was seen by the overgrown basketball court.
After another hearty breakfast, we stopped by a bridge to wait for delivery of today's packed lunches, and a couple members of the party were able to see a dipper whizz past.
Our destination was the island of Ayios Achillios, but before getting there we worked our way slowly down the isthmus. Great white pelicans were the first bird we saw, with four circling overhead. Three Dalmatian pelicans also flew by, as well as some pygmy cormorants. Whilst trying to spot a calling crested lark, a northern wheatear was seen for the first time. Closer to the lake, our first ferruginous duck was seen, alongside some little grebes, a great spotted woodpecker, more spotted flycatcher, a kingfisher and crag martins. PM was also fortunate enough to see a little bittern.