Friday, June 10, 2011

Mediterranean birding part 2

Continuing my epic odyssey through the Greek Islands where I left off…

Tilos: A small quiet out-of-the-way island that I made a special effort to visit because of its claim to be a refuge for rare bird species.  The island has apparently had a long-standing, though controversial, hunting ban, and the island has been promoting itself as the ecotourism destination of the Greek Islands.  My Lonely Planet book even proclaimed that more migratory birds arrive to its shores than tourists.  

When I arrived, however I found the most barren Greek island I had ever seen.  The arid rocky hills were completely deforested.  But after arriving in Tilos, it is too late to change plans.  Ferries come and go so rarely from the lone port of Livadia that a minimum three-day stay was necessary.  I felt almost victim to some sort of a Greenland-style marketing scheme.  Nevertheless, it was nice to get away from the bustle of over-touristed towns and establishments that tarnish too much of the Greek Archipelagos.  And there were still these rare birds I could go find…

Their silhouettes were on the door of the tourist often and the proprietor of my studio apartment supplied me a pamphlet describing each:   

1) Mediterranean Shag (“The Mediterranean Diver”), actually a subspecies of Eurasian Shag, which I had seen 5 years ago, but a target nonetheless; 2) Eleonora’s Falcon (“Falcon of the Aegean”), one of my target birds for this trip!; 3) Bonelli’s Eagle (“The Eagle of the Coasts”), Tilos is apparently home to 5 of Europe’s 800 pairs.  

Finding the Shag was easy enough.  Following the advice of a local, I strolled along the bay in the evening and, sure enough, a pair was out swimming out in the blue Aegean.  I saw a group of four later from a ferry.  (Note: that Great Cormorants are also around…just a heads up.)  One down.

Eleonora's Falcon (Dark)
Eleonora’s Falcons turned out to be a common sight in the sky.  Apparently I caught them during a big migratory movement…I counted 39 wheeling about and sparring with each other over the main town one evening.  Two down and scratch another of my targets for the trip!

The Eagle turned out to be the toughest of the Tilos trio.  Since I arrived on a Saturday night, Monday was my first opportunity to consult the tourist office for advice on where to find them, but in typical Greek form, by 9:30, nobody had shown up in the information office.  Rather than wait, I went out for a hike out to some abandoned village.  

Eleonora's Falcon (Light)
It was a long sweltering jaunt with no shade.  The village's former inhabitants probably left because they were thirsty.  I spotted a couple life birds: a Long-legged Buzzard and a Common Redstart.  But neither of those are Bonelli’s Eagles.  I just had to find one before I left the island and the clock was ticking!
By the time I made it back to town it was half past two and I was half past exhausted.  The information officer had finally shown up to work and helpfully showed me the locations of all the nesting locations of the all five pairs of Bonelli’s Eagles on the island.  Tragically one was just a ways beyond the abandoned village I had just spent hours trekking to and from.  Apparently I needed to have gone up some unmarked goat trail to find them.  All the other nests were nowhere near the main port of Livadia where I stayed.  Caught up in a heat stroke-induced delirium I went into town to try to rent a scooter so I could zip over to the far side of the island to get after my bird.  But my plans were dashed when the rental owner refused to rent me a bike because of my lack of scooter experience.  Given the lack of a hospital on the island, this was probably for the best.  

Defeated, I shuffled back to my room and took a Greek-style mid-afternoon nap.  There was no way I could see the eagle now.  The nests were too far away and I wouldn’t have the time or transport to get to one before my 11 am ferry the following morning.  I awoke in the early evening refreshed and decided to go for another hike.  This one didn’t take me anywhere near one of the eagle nests, so I was pleasantly shocked when a couple calling gulls alerted me to the presence of a passing Bonelli’s Eagle!  The gulls chased it ahead of me and then an Eleonora’s Falcon dive-bombed it from out of nowhere forcing some impressive evasive maneuvering from the eagle.  It was like watching a fighter jet go after a bomber.  

Twenty minutes further along the trail the same eagle flushed from a nearby boulder this time with two Ravens in hot pursuit.  Their croaking attracted a few more gulls that joined into the fray.  It definitely appeared to be in hostile territory! 
Short-toed (Snake) Eagle - a Tilos first!

After rounding a rocky headland the trail reached a gorge filled with some of the most luxuriant vegetation I had seen on the island.  Other than a large covey of Chukar though there was little conspicuous bird life.  Then I noticed the imposing silhouette of a raptor perched in a dead tree ahead and above me on the rim of the gorge.  It took flight and circled several times over me giving me a chance to get great looks and take a jerky video (probably not worth watching, but uploaded here anyway: HD video).  I identified it to be a Short-toed (Snake) Eagle, which I found out the next morning was a species that had not been seen previously on Tilos.  An island first!!!

So despite the rather Martian climate and lack of bird habitat, I left Tilos upbeat.  An Audouin’s Gull (“near-threatened” per the IUCN) from the ferry en route to Nissyros was great icing for the cake. 


My next stop, Kos, was brief (only 8 hours), but was my last chance to bird on my own on this trip so I wanted to make the most of it.  I rented a bike and set out for what appeared to be a wetland on my map.  Fortuitously it turned out to be Alykes Lake, which was loaded with Greater Flamingos and the closest thing I had seen thus far on my trip to what one might call a birdwatching hotspot by New World standards.  

Spur-winged Plover
On my loop around the lake I encountered a handful of life birds: Spur-winged Plover (or Lapwing), (Greater) Short-toed Lark, Ruddy Shelduck, Eurasian Reed-Warbler and Lesser Gray Shrike.  I also found a Black-winged Stilt, which, along with the flamingos, I had only seen previously in Australia. A bonus on the cycle back to town was a Eurasian Hobby perched on the power lines for yet another life tick (#1489). 

My next stop was Paros and my brothers’ wedding.  From here on out I birded less intensely, mainly as a courtesy to the non-birding “normal people” with whom I kept company.  So from here on (and in the interest of wrapping this up) I’m just going to go blitz through the final 11 birds on my quest for 1500.


I flushed a Common Snipe out of a ditch one day (#1490); hooray!  I also had three Ruffs and caught a photo of one in flight with the diagnostic white pattern.  This would have been a life bird had I not seen one (amazingly) at Jordan Lake in Durham, NC.

From the ferry to Athens I spotted a pair of Yelkouan (aka. Levantine; aka. Mediterranean) Shearwaters (#1491).


I saw my first Hoopoes at the Parthenon 5 years ago, but no sign of any this time.  This was probably more a function of the time of day than anything else (mid-afternoon rather than early morning).  

Little Owls are everywhere if you know where to look.  They can be camera shy though!
Little Owl (relaxed)
Little Owl (freaked out!)

I heard and flushed a few Cirl Buntings while poking around Agamemnon’s old haunt in the Peloponnese (#1492)


A 4-hour hike down the Vouraikos gorge yielding some beautiful views, Coal Tits and Gray Wagtails, but no life ticks.  


I saw my first Blackcap in a park in Maceratta (#1493).  I would later see many more in Croatia. 

Krka National Park (Croatia)
Krka National Park

This gorgeous network of streams pools and waterfalls crisscrossed by boardwalks was unfortunately mobbed with tour bus groups.  The beauty wasn’t diminished but the crowds were definitely a hindrance.  Supposedly Black Storks are possible in Krka, but I saw no water birds of any kind other than a couple mallards (despite the abundance of water everywhere).  A detour down an access road yielded views of Common Nightengale and Cetti’s Warbler (#1494 and 1495), two birds I had heard several times previously on the trip but never been able to see.  

Paklenica National Park

Eurasian Nuthatch
Approximately 95% of visitors to the park are there to rock climb, which left us with nearly private use of the 200 kilometers of hiking trails.  The landscape was bizzare…not because of the rugged peaks ridges and shelves that seemed to jut whimsically in every direction, but mainly because the lush beech or spruce forests seemed to emerge directly from rocky hill slope.  It was as if there were no soil in most places, only dolomite boulders and cobble. 

I read somewhere that Gryphon Vultures used to breed here, but that they had been extirpated in the 1990s.  So this was my only non-chance to see one of my target birds! I wasn’t holding my breath on the vulture, but it was nice to be out in a relatively undisturbed forest for essentially the first time on this trip.  It seemed to have some birds I had never seen before as well: Eurasian Nuthatch (#1496), Common Chiffchaff (#1497), Willow Tit (#1498) and Eastern Orphean Warbler (#1499).  These relatively unexciting birds set me up for a worthy #1500:
Black Woodpecker
a Black Woodpecker, my first woodpecker of the trip and a huge and beautiful bird to boot! I watched it fly between several huge dead stumps in a gorgeous old grove of huge trees that created a natural cathedral.  It was a spectacular setting in which to achieve this milestone. 

Elsewhere in Croatia

That evening from my apartment balcony, someplace northwest of Starigrad, I spotted a Red-backed Shrike (#1501; I didn’t get stuck on 1500 for very long).  Moments later in the gathering darkness a Tawny Owl called and swooped from a tree (#1502).  

The countryside inland was beautiful and the drive yielded some amazing views of countless islands and peninsulas enveloped by an indefinable matrix of straights and sounds.  Bird life was rather unremarkable, though Red-backed Shrikes were everywhere, Common Buzzards seemed interested in the Tesla museum and I heard (but didn't get to see) some Eurasian Cuckoos in a church yard.  

Red-backed Shrike
The Zadar airport is noteworthy because it has the only terminal I have ever seen with an outdoor café/waiting area.  I took full advantage and was rewarded with some surprisingly interesting hawk watching.  A Montagu’s Harrier flew past (#1503) and then a Honey Buzzard (#1504) about 15 minutes later.  At this point I was getting some pretty strange looks from fellow passengers.  Fortunately nothing else interesting showed up and no one reported me as a terrorist suspect. 

So that was my experience birding a bit in the Mediterranean.  My two targets missed were Gryphon Vulture (which I never really had a chance at) and Roller.  But I got 45 life birds, soaked in loads of ancient history and saw my brother get happily married.  What a trip!  Next time around I’ll skip Tilos and go straight up some mountain looking for Lammergeiers and Wallcreepers as a proper birding nut should.  

For now it’s back to NC birding, but I’ll be dipping back to Europe in just a few weeks to go to a Society of Wetland Scientists Conference in Prague.  Why?  To make a poster presentation about birds!  I can’t wait.  And maybe I’ll be able to see some Black Storks in some Czech wetland while I’m there!

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