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WINGS Birding Tours – Narrative

Greece: Lesvos

Spring Migration Through the Aegean

2024 Narrative

This year, I decided we should ‘hit the ground running’, so to speak. With the only reliable site on the island for the exquisite Rüppell’s Warbler nowadays being a short distance away from Mytelini Airport–and this being at the end of the island we have little reason to visit for any other birds–the scrub-covered hillside near Charamida was our first stop, just fifteen minutes after meeting outside the Arrivals hall! We didn’t have to wait very long in the warm evening sun for a male Rüppell’s Warbler to alight in full view at the top of a small pine tree and start singing. Having failed to see the species the previous year, this was as good a start as I had hoped for, and it was followed by an unexpected bonus: while scanning the habitat, and looking beyond the male Eastern Black-eared Wheatears that flitted from bush to bush, a fishing trawler came into view on the sea just below us, trailed by a cloud of gulls. It wasn’t until I took a look through the telescope that I noticed a good number of Scopoli’s Shearwaters mixed in with the Yellow-legged Gulls, the shearwaters staying close to the water surface, with some plunging below, in pursuit of whatever discards were being thrown their way. We don’t often see this species as clearly as this, as usually they are more distant, and greatly outnumbered by Yelkouan Shearwaters. We took a more scenic route back to our hotel that evening, making a stop along the way at the village of Loutra, where Palm Dove, a bird that is colonising the eastern Mediterranean, was recently discovered to be breeding. We had close views of three birds, including one sitting on a nest located just over the door of a small store, and a beautifully marked male in song. It probably won’t be long before this species becomes a common sight all over the island, but for now it is still considered very special.

Usually, our first full day is spent getting to know the birds that can be found close to where we are based, at Skala Kalloni, but the forecast of heavy rain throughout our first night, and the prospect of this rain bringing down a lot of migrants, determined that we would devote the main part of the day to the west of the island, where arrivals of migrants are often in far greater numbers than elsewhere. Beforehand, there was time for a pre-breakfast excursion to the Tsiknias river mouth and Kalloni salt pans where we encountered our first Purple Herons, a lively and typically vocal flock of Bee-eaters, a pair of Spur-winged Lapwings and a bedraggled male Red-footed Falcon that was sitting it out in the rain.

The wind and rain that persisted for the morning in the west of the island meant that we observed mostly from within the vehicle, but it was clear that a lot of birds had arrived in the bad weather. At Faneromeni, beautiful male Red-backed and Woodchat Shrikes, Collared Flycatchers, Hoopoes, flocks of Yellow Wagtails and a very close Montagu’s Harrier were among the highlights, but the best of the lot was a magnificent Roller that perched in full view on a thin fence-post, occasionally dropping to the ground for a morsel of prey, when its dazzling open-wing pattern was revealed.

In the course of two subsequent visits to the rugged west of the island we had excellent views of Cinereous Bunting, Rock Sparrow, Western Rock Nuthatch, Isabelline Wheatear, Crag Martin and Little Owl, as well as many common species.

Closer to our base at Kalloni, the salt-pans and surrounding fields hosted a great variety of birds, including numerous Pied Avocets, Black-winged Stilts, Little Terns, Greater Flamingoes, Dalmatian Pelican, Marsh and Montagu’s Harriers, Red-throated Pipits, Short-toed Larks, Tawny Pipits, Ruddy Shelducks, Glossy Ibis and both White and Black Storks. A mobile flock of about 50 Collared Pratincoles gave us a bit of a run-around, but we eventually located them roosting in the middle of the saltpans.

On our way to explore the north part of the island we stopped at a small stand of mature eucalyptus trees which is a known roost site for the delightful Scops Owl, a bird we can hear calling at night from our hotel rooms, but which is not so easy to see by day. Despite the eucalyptus being a non-native tree, the owls seem to have some sense of how their vermiculated plumage affords them perfect camouflage against the accumulations of old, dead leaves and tangled growth where they choose to roost. It can take time to locate one, but on this occasion we were lucky to spot one almost immediately upon arrival, and could view every detail through the telescope.  At Kavaki, the site where we used to see Rüppell’s Warbler up until last year, we had excellent views of a pair of Blue Rock Thrushes, as well as adult and a one-year old Peregrine Falcons. We

familiarised ourselves with the salient identification features of the passing Yellow-legged Gulls, in case an Audouin’s Gull might come into view, but none came by on this occasion.

A little easy walking along sections of the beautiful ‘Napi Valley’ gave us a chance to use our ears as much as our eyes; the quiet, purring song of Turtle Doves, fluty whistles of Golden Orioles, hooting Hoopoes and chattering Masked and Woodchat Shrikes all blended with the gentle chiming of numerous sheep-bells to create an extraordinarily evocative soundscape. Here, we found the first singing Olive Tree Warbler of the season, and, unusually for this notoriously elusive species, it sat in full view on its preferred song perch for several minutes.

Every spring trip here is a little different, each with one or two unexpected surprises, but also one or two species that, lest we take them for granted, don’t show up. Perhaps it is the sheer unpredictability that makes the birding on Lesvos so exciting, and this is why so many people return year, after year after year; you just can’t beat it!

- Killian Mullarney

Created: 29 May 2024