At the beginning of the year Jem and I decided that we wanted to go on a birding holiday to Austria. We chose one from Oriole Birding which fitted the bill nicely. Unfortunately, as we went ahead to book it, we were told that the guide had suffered an injury and wouldn’t be well enough to lead the tour this year. So then I spent a couple of days going through brochures and websites looking for alternative options, which I collated in a spreadsheet. Each time Jem and I went through the pros and cons we ended up arriving at the same shortlist of three, and eventually the decision was made to book our places on Birdfinders’ tour to Lesbos.
Day One was spent travelling: by Tube to Heathrow, and then flights to Athens and then the short hop to Mytilene. We arrived late in the evening and then our guide, Neil, collected our minibus and we headed off to our hotel on the outskirts of Mithymna/Molivos in the north of the island (puncturing a tyre as we arrived).
The first full morning was spent relatively close by. We began on the coastal hills at Kavaki, where we started with my first life tick of the tour: a pair of Ruddy Shelduck (#416 on the lifelist), as well as a nice Black-eared Wheatear and a brief Common Cuckoo. Moving up the hillside track we got several Eastern Subalpine Warblers (#417), a showy Sardinian Warbler, and a brief Rüppell’s Warbler (#418). It was a cool and damp day and we then moved on firstly to the Kalloni Raptor Watchpoint where we got views of Marsh Harrier, Long-legged Buzzard, Red-footed Falcon, and Short-toed Eagle, as well as Western Rock Nuthatch (#419) and Cretzschmar’s Bunting (#420). Then it was down into the town so we could get the tyre replaced, stopping first to look for European Scops Owls in the trees around a mini football pitch. Known by birders as ‘Scops Copse’ it proved to be aptly named as we eventually managed to find three of the reported six owls (#421). Next we moved on to the Kalloni Saltpans to find lots of waders, such as Black-winged Stilt, Avocet, Ruff, Little Stint and Wood Sandpiper, and Common and Little Terns. There was also a Black Stork with a drooped wing. In the afternoon we moved on to the nearby Tsiknias River where we found Little Bittern, Glossy Ibis, Great Reed Warbler, Red-footed Falcon, Nightingale, Black-crowned Night-heron, Penduline Tit, and my first Collared Flycatcher (#422). Not a bad start to the tour, especially considering the damp weather.
Day Three began at Kavaki again, giving us good views of a Turtle Dove and distant views of Yelkouan’s Shearwaters (#423), along with some Dolphins in the bay. As we headed towards Sigri we stopped at various spots to find Cirl Bunting, more Subalpine Warblers, a Sombre Tit (#424), and a couple of Hoopoes. Blue Rock Thrush (#425) was seen at another stop nearby. We then ascended to the Ipsilou Monastery, getting good views on the way of Isabelline Wheatear (#426), as well as Woodchat Shrikes and a flock of Bee-eaters overhead. At the top we got better views of the Western Rock Nuthatch, a very showy, singing Cinereous Bunting (#427), and a brief flyover from an Eleonora’s Falcon (#428). Northern Wheatear and a second Sombre Tit were seen here too, along with a large Glass Lizard. We descended after lunch and made our way to Sigri, where we found three Golden Orioles calling together, several Zitting Cisticolas, a Common Redstart, and Spotted and Collared Flycatchers. Moving on to the ford we saw several more flycatchers, a Cetti’s Warbler and a Wood Warbler. On the way back towards Sigri itself we had a harrier fly over our heads. We had a lot of debate over whether it was Montagu’s or Pallid, and it was only after putting the photos on Birdforum once I was back home that it was eventually identified as Pallid.
Day Four saw us head back out to the Kalloni area and on to the Christou to have a look at a real mega: the first Demoiselle Crane (#429) ever for Lesbos, and only the sixth record for Greece. It was fairly distant but close enough to see its features, and then we had an added bonus when a Red-backed Shrike (#430) perched on a tree nearby. Following that we found a nice Little Bittern at the pool at Skala Kallonis, and then we headed on to Metochi Lake where we found Little Crake (#431). I saw two birds, but apparently there were six there. Various hirundines hawked around and I saw a Common Cuckoo fly past too. We moved along to the Potamia Valley riverside, getting a Masked Shrike (#432) on the way. Here we saw a nice Long-legged Buzzard and a bright European Green Lizard on a rock by the path. The next stop was the Achlederi Forest, where we had both Serin and another Masked Shrike by the car park. A walk up the forest track brought us Krüper’s Nuthatch (#433). There were two birds, very mobile either side of the path and it was difficult to get good views, but it was just good enough to see some diagnostics. We also had a Scarce Swallowtail butterfly here. On the way back we found a Short-toed Treecreeper (#434) and heard a Mistle Thrush. We returned to the Saltpans to have a look at plenty of Whiskered Terns, a Marsh Sandpiper, and a Spur-winged Plover (#435). It was whilst watching the Marsh Sandpiper on a pool across the main road that everything suddenly scattered. Surprisingly, I seemed to be the only member of the group who noticed the raptor floating – not very high – above our heads, but eventually most of the group got on to it and it proved to be our second Pallid Harrier, and this was followed ten minutes later by a third.
The first stop on Day Five was at the hillside chapel of Aghios Ioannis. Here we had both Lesser and Common Whitethroats, Cretzschmar’s Bunting, Cirl Bunting and both Red-backed and Woodchat Shrikes. Moving on to the Makara Valley in cloudy conditions we had Peregrine and Red-footed Falcons, Crag Martin, Alpine Swift, and the highlight of the morning: a European Roller (#436) which perched obligingly on a rock below a rocky cliff face. We made it down to the beach for some sea watching to get Yelkouan’s and Scopoli’s (#437) Shearwaters and we also had another Turtle Dove, Cetti’s Warbler, and Eastern Olivaceous Warbler (#438). We then headed towards Sigri via the Meladia Valley, seeing a number of Cretzschmar’s Buntings and Wheatears on the way. Arriving at the ford where another group was trying to locate a Marsh Warbler, we got our first Black-headed Bunting (#439). We headed back the way we came and eventually stopped high on a valley hillside to look for Rock Petronia. Jem and I were tired and decided to relax in the minibus, until a shout of “Great Spotted Cuckoo!” woke us up and we bounced out of the vehicle. On the slope below us was one single tree with a cuckoo sat in the top of it (#440). We watched for some time, and then a second bird appeared amongst the leaves a bit lower down. It was an unexpected and very welcome bonus. After that little show we headed back to the hotel, with a Middle Spotted Woodpecker seen flying across the road in front of us at one point too.
Day Six began back around the Saltpans, bringing us a Citrine Wagtail (#441) and several Squacco Herons. There was at least one more Eastern Olivaceous Warbler in the trees, plus distant views of the Little Owl again. Corn Buntings and Black-headed Bunting were here, and after seeing a distant flock of Garganey in flight, we also had a fourth Pallid Harrier in the distance. Back along the edge of the pans we had a flock of Gull-billed Terns overhead and a low-flying Short-toed Eagle that we could almost have reached up and touched. We moved on round to the shore side meadow and got Greater Short-toed Lark and Red-throated Pipit (#442). We stopped at the Madaros Valley silos for some lunch and had yet another harrier – this time a Montagu’s – fly straight through, and a nice Hoopoe briefly up on a wire, but I couldn’t get a photo. A few minutes later presumably the same bird was sat calling from another wire. Luckily it was screened by a large tree and I was able to sneak up and then get some snaps through a gap in the branches. We then headed off for a walk up the valley, getting an Eastern Orphean Warbler (#443) on the way. Three Hobbies, a Black Stork, and then two White Storks were seen overhead, as well as another Short-toed Eagle. On the way back towards the hotel we stopped at the Scops Copse again to have a look in better conditions than we’d had on Monday, and this time we located five birds. Then we had another stop at the Raptor Watchpoint. Here we had Lesser Kestrel, Long-legged Buzzard, Short-toed Eagle, Eleonora’s Falcon, Cretzschmar’s Bunting and Woodchat Shrike, plus a Starred Agama lizard on the rocks.
Day Seven began with a search for Olive-tree Warbler, which most of us didn’t manage to see, but we instead got Nightingales and more Subalpine Warblers. Moving on we had a roadside stop to watch Middle Spotted Woodpeckers attending their nest in a dead tree. There were also Cirl Buntings and Rock Petronias here. We carried on up to the Petrified Forest road where we finally got to see a couple of Chukars (#444) as they bobbed amongst the rocks. We descended to Sigri again and as we arrived we had three shrike species all together in one small meadow: Woodchat, Red-backed and Lesser Grey (#445). The flycatchers were still in the same place, and Golden Orioles were calling nearby, whilst two Lesser Kestrels circled overhead. After lunch at the nearby beach we headed back to watch the Middle Spotted Woodpeckers again. A big surprise was a Griffon Vulture floating over the opposite hill, being mobbed by a buzzard. There was also another Eleonora’s Falcon here, and a Western Rock Nuthatch on a small cliff face. On the way back we stopped at Aghios Taxiarchis again to look for the Olive-tree Warbler that we missed this morning. Still no sign, but there were more shrikes – all three species again – Nightingale and Sombre Tit.
For the final morning we headed back out to Kavaki to look for more warblers. I wanted a good photo of a Subalpine so some of us went up the hill path looking for them, whilst the rest of the group stayed on the coast-side of the road and had great views of Rüppell’s Warbler. Although I saw Subalpine well, I still couldn’t quite get the shots I wanted. I did see some good butterflies though, including Scarce Swallowtail and Painted Lady. We then returned to the hotel to get packed, and also got a good opportunity to look at the Middle-eastern subspecies of Jay which was in the trees just outside our balcony. And then it was off to the airport.
In all I added 30 new species to my lifelist. We managed to get almost everything that we’d hoped to see – with only Collared Pratincole failing to show up. There were very few negatives – perhaps I’d have liked to have seen Krüper’s Nuthatch a bit better, and Red-footed Falcon too – but there were so many highlights that outweighed those few picky things. Seeing my first Scops Owls (I’d heard them calling in Serbia) – and seeing several of them close-up – was a massive highlight for me, along with the Sylvia warblers, shrikes, buntings, Roller and raptors. The Demoiselle Crane and Great Spotted Cuckoos were extra bonuses too. We were also lucky with the weather, and the photography opportunities that it allowed. It started off a bit cool and damp, but then was mostly warm and sunny for the rest of the week, but without getting too scorching. Having said that, it would’ve been nice if the hotel pool had been filled…
This was definitely one of the best trips I’ve been on and I’d definitely return to Lesbos in the future, although we missed out on so few species this time that it would probably be difficult to find many new birds…
The full photo album can be viewed on my Flickr page.
Prints of many of my photos from the tour can be ordered here.