Wednesday, 6 May 2015

Lake Kerkini: an evolving wetland - home to thousands of herons and pelicans

A few days spent birding around Lake Kerkini in northern Greece last week was very rewarding and offered great opportunities to get close up to water birds, especially pelicans and egrets.
Dalmatian pelican
In the surrounding countryside there are good populations of Mediterranean birds, including shrikes and golden orioles.  White storks nest in the villages and black storks on wooded hillsides.  
black stork
white stork
There is good accommodation available, we stayed at Limneo and Ihnilatis, though the choice of tavernas is limited off season.
The lake has an interesting history as it was first established in the 1920s partly to control flooding in the area and downriver (where a huge lake was drained and converted to farmland), and also to drain the existing wetlands and so help control the spread of malaria.  The need for greater flood control and a supply of water for thirsty crops led to further development of the lake in the 1980s - banks were raised considerably and existing wetlands, including wet forest, were badly damaged or destroyed.  Shallow lakes with extensive water lily beds where marsh terns bred were lost too.  On the plus side the lake is now well established and has a developed into a major breeding site for Dalmatian pelicans, with very large heron and cormorant colonies in the flooded forest. The surrounding landscape is low intensity farmland and wooded hillsides.  Snow-capped  mountains complete the scene (snow persisting well into spring).  There are several good viewpoints around the lake and drivable tracks to explore. 

A boat trip out to the main heronry was a real highlight.  The boat drifts very quietly into the colony, enabling close views of night herons, pygmy cormorants, spoonbills and little egrets on their nests within the trees
night heron
Great white pelicans roost on sand banks here in large groups and are stunning in their bright orange facial breeding colours: weird and wonderful.
great white pelicans
Thousands of cormorants and hundreds of grey herons nest here, and dominate the colony.

There is trouble in this paradise for herons - the forest is suffering the effects of flooding and the sheer numbers of breeding birds have an impact too.  There are many dead and sickly looking trees, but also many quite healthy: hopefully the forest can recover over time.  The boat then continues from the heronry to the Dalmatian pelican breeding colony (a platform and a raft), keeping a safe distance to avoid disturbance.  These are still very rare birds - when this colony first established it was the only new one anywhere in the world for over a century.  Dalmatian pelican remains have been found at archaeological sites in the UK (Cambridgeshire and Somerset) and it is not inconceivable they could return with a bit of help, maybe Rutland Water would make a good home for them?
Damlation pelican colony using artificial raft
In late April the whole area around the lake is packed with nightingales.  They really are extremely common in this part of Greece. The hillsides are thick with scrub, with a transition to woodland higher up.  Although on first glance the woodlands look natural, they are actually well managed and as a result very thick with scrubby regrowth.  There is very little grazing here. The result is huge expanses of ideal nightingale habitat. In fact it is hard to find any "old growth" woodland here - I struggled to find many woodpeckers as a result.

I real highlight for me was also watching newly returned golden orioles singing from stands of poplars -at one stage five males together in the open, then swooping up into the air above the trees chasing after insects.
golden oriole
Lesser spotted eagle was a new species for me and is common here, often flying quite low over the hills and giving really good prolonged views.  Other birds of prey included black kite, marsh harrier and short-toed eagle.

Mammals are interesting too, we had two sightings of wild cat and one of golden jackal.  Quite a lot of spring flowers, including leopard's bane Doronicum officinale in the hilltop woodland and some beautiful anemones in the grassy edges of the scrubland.

Green lizards were particularly showy at the picnic area next to the boat departure point at Kerkini Harbour.

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