An unusual Clubtail experience + Orchids at Hartslock, Berks – 24 & 25th May

Common Clubtail has once more lived up to its reputation for being difficult to locate in this new dragonfly season. The reason is they are tree top dwellers, and so if not observed upon emergence from slow flowing rivers are unlikely to be encountered again. My only previous English record was four years ago along the Thames path at Pangbourne on the Oxon / Berks border (SU662774). Multiple visits to that site in the seasons since produced just one fly past and I again drew blank on three occasions in the last week.

All that changed today when I found myself attempting to assist in the birth of one Clubtail before witnessing a second go gloriously on its way. Yesterday afternoon (24th), with a friend Wayne Smith I had checked out Goring railway bridge across the Thames (SU606797) further upstream from Pangbourne. This is the classic Oxon site for Clubtail emergences that I had also visited unsuccessfully twice in 2015. Now in company with a lady off the train from London we at least found four exuviae (larval cases), two on the concrete wall of the bridge abutment and two more in long grass at the top. These were the first odo exuviae (pictured below) I have ever seen and I admit it was my companions who uncovered them.

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Common Clubtail exuvia

Banded Demoiselle damselflies are everywhere along the Thames at this time of year. I particularly like the bottle green and orange-toned females, though both genders are always photogenic. Just upstream from Goring railway bridge is a tiny nature reserve Little Meadow that is administered by a local charity. Until walking around this site I had tried not to become too distracted by the Demoiselles. But here they were posing so perfectly against uncluttered backgrounds that I just couldn’t resist some premium shots (below).

Finding the Clubtail exuviae was to tread on a slippery slope. I now just had to witness adults emerging in this place and so resolved to go back earlier today (25th) with my chair and stay until something was seen. I arrived on site around 11:30am, the ensuing three hours being reputed as the optimum time for emergences here. After an hour of regular checks, upon the concrete abutment was a strange shape that had not been there before; and something was starting to climb out of it (pictured below).

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Emerging Common Clubtail

I was about to watch and photograph an adult Common Clubtail dragonfly entering the daylight world after it’s long underwater sojourn as a nymph. But it soon became apparent this might take some time. After 30 minutes I was joined by another observer, James who is a post-graduate ornithologist at Oxford University, and we watched on together. I was concerned by how low on the wall our Clubtail had elected to emerge, since it could easily be dislodged by the wash from passing boats.

Eventually the inevitable happened. We couldn’t tell whether the stricken dragonfly was trying to re-attach itself against the wall or just being splashed around, and so the decision was taken to rescue it. Using a long stem of Cow Parsley I extracted the sorry, sodden insect from the water and we then placed it on a wooden post where it might continue to emerge. But things were clearly very wrong.

The dragonfly looked grotesquely twisted and had plainly been having difficulty in emerging properly even before falling back into the water. So I held down the tip of the exuvia at which the Clubtail made greater efforts to release itself but still could not break free. If any reader objects to any of this all I can say is that in my inexperience I did what I could think of to give a clearly distressed creature a greater chance of life. But things were to no avail and eventually this unfortunate insect expired. I will submit it’s remains to the British Dragonfly Society (BDS) for DNA analysis, via the Oxon county recorder.

The failed emergence had lasted two hours and the time was now approaching 2:30pm. My companion wandered away and soon called me across to where a second Common Clubtail (pictured above) was perched on the abutment wall. This one was much bigger and more robust than the deformed runt we had so concerned ourselves with. There it was, perfectly formed but rather pale looking alongside its larval case. As we watched the second insect seemed to colour up a little then suddenly flexed it’s wings a few times before flying off majestically over our heads. So there was a positive ending after all to what had been a rather strange Clubtail experience.

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All’s well this time … how it should happen

A short walk downstream from Goring railway bridge lies BBOWT’s Hartslock Reserve (see here) that is famed for it’s rare Lady and Monkey Orchids and a possibly unique hybrid of the two. 2017’s only Lady at the site had now finished but the Monkeys were in full bloom though not of their best this year due to the mainly dry spring weather. Most of the Orchids in bloom today were of the Lady x Monkey Hybrid that has established itself at this site since 2006. I am not a botanist and so hope I have got this (below) right. The unimproved chalk downland hillside of Hartslock also enjoys stunning views over the Goring Gap and River Thames.

Common Clubtail from the river below are said to fly over the BBOWT reserve though I didn’t see any during a fairly brief visit. I assumed they would be active high up in the wooded areas. With this so difficult dragonfly and female Hairy Hawker both observed in May two of my top odo priorities for 2017 have been converted successfully. That must be due to this past week’s complete sunny days, instead of the more usual scenario of leaving home in sunshine only for cloud to roll in on site. The countryside around Goring-on-Thames, a designated AONB is also very pleasant just to walk around and these two days have been uplifting in no small measure.

Note: The Oxon BDS recorder is maintaining a complete log of 2017 Common Clubtail sightings in the county. To consult this click here.

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A celebration of the Hairy Hawker – May 2017

One of my top dragonfly priorities in the last two seasons has been to acquire better pictures of Hairy Hawker, and also to observe females of that species for the first time. But two years ago (2015) neither aim was realised and last year there were not suitable spring weather conditions to keep them out in the open.

Since my return from abroad on 13th May there has been a lot of wet weather that has been great for my wildlife garden at home, and for writing up my experiences in northern Greece but not for getting out and seeing insects. The first sunny weather window was on the morning of 18th and so I headed for RSPB Otmoor, probably the best place locally to engage with Hairy Hawker. Fortunately the prime HH spots on this former enthusiasts’ reserve, now populist playground are away from the visitor trail.

I parked in the village of Noke and walked into the reserve’s western end, to be greeted immediately by an enquiry of: “Have you seen much out that way?” Gritting my teeth I strode on, crossing paths with a first male HH as the morning warmed. After stopping to chat with other Oxon birding colleagues I walked on towards the “cross roads” at the reserve’s heart. A medium-sized dragonfly went up from one edge of the track and flew around a little before settling in a bush on the other side. This was indeed my first ever female Hairy Hawker (pictured below) and what a cracker she is!

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Hairy Hawker (female)

To me there is nothing more fascinating, complex and subtle in the natural world than dragonflies, and this was one of the most attractive I have ever seen. Behold the rust, ochre and chocolate brown patterning; the deep yellow veining in the wings and those languid, pale blue eyes. This insect had possibly just emerged because she remained faithful to the same sunny spot for a long time and was still there when I set off back to Noke. As I went a mating pair flew by then disappeared into cover to continue with what must be done.

Unfortunately it is seldom possible to deflect accosters along Otmoor’s bridleway by saying I am looking for dragonflies, without those people talking about Hobbies (ie the summer Falcon). It irritates me when seasoned birders and other persons carrying optics alike dismiss the beautiful and charismatic creatures that dragonflies are as “Hobby food”. I’m sorry chaps and chapesses but you’re missing out. In my view such beauty should not be regarded so trivially.

I have borrowed the above images from two other Oxon birders © rights of the owners reserved. This dragonfly is so called because of a noticeably downy thorax. It is shorter than other hawkers with a stout abdomen, creating the impression of being a more compact insect. Males typically make low and inquisitive patrols in and out of the gaps in vegetation. HH has an earlier flight season than the British Aeshna hawkers, Southern, Migrant and Moorland; all of which peak in late summer

The last two days (21st and 22nd) have been gloriously sunny, perfect dragonfly weather. Yesterday I had work commitments but much of today was spent odo hunting, mostly for Common Clubtail without success. In the late afternoon I returned to Otmoor to attempt to photograph male Hairy Hawker. A very pleasant 90 minutes ensued, this time at the eastern end of the reserve away from the over-trafficked visitor trail.

At least seven individuals were encountered, including another female but these were not inclined to settle in the bright sunlight. And so they patrolled up and down hawking for midges, now here now there; while a similar number of Four-spotted Chaser were warming up for their own new season of hustling and mugging. As I progressed a courting pair of Turtle Dove were chasing around overhead, the male’s tree top purring filling the air. A Cuckoo called constantly and out in the field on one side of Otmoor’s bridleway a lingering Peregrine surveyed the scene stoically from a post-top perch. This was the acme of springtime.

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Hairy Hawker (male)

Eventually I was rewarded when on catching sight of another male Hairy Hawker it settled fairly high up to one side of the track. This (above) is actually not a bad result considering the distance at which it was captured. But I yearn for uncluttered images, though in truth that is not how Hairy Hawker are usually seen. My best past portrait in that regard is still of an imperfect specimen with most of one wing missing.

As of two seasons ago I had observed every regularly occurring English dragonfly. So my current interest lies with improving on past pictures where necessary, gaining more experience of certain species and recording females of others. Hairy Hawker has provided a satisfying start to the new season. How much time I will devote to the more difficult and frustrating Emeralds, Common Clubtail and Moorland Hawker I cannot say. But thank heaven for dragonflies that as spring turns to summer have a special capacity to impact upon the quality of life.

Butterflies in Greek Macedonia: 7 – 12th May

During the Naturetrek tour featured in the last three posts our group recorded 34 different butterfly species. I was assured by our leader this was not a bad tally for May, with butterfly numbers in Macedonia peaking in June. The prime focus of the trip was birds so we did not go to any location looking specifically for insects. Hence this account is not intended to portray a representative butterfly summary for the region, rather it describes what we came across whilst birding. For me the butterflies described herein include 11 lifers (denoted by *), three of which are whites that I would prefer to term regional species.

The most frequently seen white was Eastern Bath White * (below left) that to me looked a little larger and less blotchy on the lower underwings than its western equivalent. Size is of course not a reliable indicator, while Collins uses the word intense instead of blotchy. In truth the two species are more easily separated on the laboratory bench than in the field, but I went on the word of our tour leader who was armed with a copy of the out-of-print Tristan Lafranchis European butterfly guide. I was assured the latter is far more useful in the field than Collins, though I found its presentation difficult to get my head around. A second regional species, Southern Small White * that has more extensive black wing-tips than our own, was also seen a few times but not photographed.

Black-veined White * is a butterfly I especially wanted to experience on this trip, being a common and widespread European mainland species that somehow I had not come across in les Cevennes (see here) a year ago. We found this large, graceful white several times in both woodland and more open habitats at various altitudes. It has a languid and rather floppy flight pattern reminiscent of Swallowtails, moving constantly without settling too often. The south-western edge of Lake Kerkini and lower Mavrovouni hills was the best area for BVW. There at one roadside site in cool conditions on 12th, several individuals posed for the camera (below).

The trip’s first new Blue was Chapman’s Blue *, seen on 8th at a site in the Belles Mountains  This is a species I have puzzled over previously in southern France and Cyprus but had not ID’d conclusively until now, so it was a particularly satisfying find. Males (pictured below) have a noticeably violet-tinged colouration, a little deeper in tone than Common Blue, and the marginal underwing patterning is especially bright compared to similar Blues.

The second Blue lifer was the rare and much sought Iolas Blue * (pictured below, left), two individuals being found at Belles Mountains sites on 8th and 12th. One of the largest Blues, this upland species has a patchy and highly localised distribution across south-eastern Europe. They do not form tight colonies around food plant concentrations like many blues, but can range over several kilometres seldom stopping for long. So locating them is never easy and seeing two or three in a day would be an achievement. Iolas’ status is endangered by collectors stripping the food plant, Bladder Senna of seed pods (below, right) in which the larvae grow to remove eggs.

Probably the most frequently seen butterfly of the trip was Lesser Spotted Fritillary * that was encountered in most of the places we visited. This dapper and diminutive south-east European species certainly looked smaller and less bright than the Spotted Fritillary I have observed previously in Portugal and southern France.

One of the stand-out sightings of the trip was a beautiful fresh Queen of Spain Fritillary * that was observed on 7th at a site in the Strimonas valley. Worn individuals were also seen on a few other occasions in different places. This is a very widespread mainland European species with striking underwing patterning (pictured below, right). The underside hind wings are decorated with large pearly spots and crossed by a row of black eyespots with pearly pupils. Some pearly spots also appear at the apex of the forewings.

On the slopes of Mount Vrondous on 10th the butterflies included some familiar early season specialities from home. Dingy and Grizzled Skipper were both flying here and also a colony of Duke of Burgundy (pictured below). I had not observed any of these three early season specialities in England this year, where the unseasonably mild start to April brought them out early while I was in Estonia, then the rest of that months cold northerly winds served to keep them out of sight.

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Montane Duke of Burgundy

Two more new (for me) regional species were also encountered here. Northern Wall Brown * occurs across Fennoscandia hence presumably its name, and locally in the Pyrenees, Alps, Carpathians and Balkan peninsula. A true montane species, it is darker toned on the upper side than regular Wall Brown with very attractive underwing patterning (pictured below).

This was an especially satisfying butterfly to have discovered here, as was Eastern Wood White * (pictured above). This third of my new “regional whites” ranges locally from south-eastern France through north-western Italy to the western and southern Balkans. A key diagnostic is the grey and brown antennae club, that in regular Wood White is black and grey. In the spring brood Eastern also has bolder underwing patterning and the upper-side is slightly yellowish. If that all sounds picky be thankful I have yet to distinguish the other two full Wood White species, Fenton’s and Real’s that can only be separated reliably on genitalia characters.

On the afternoon of 11th we visited a lake near a village Vafiocheri, that like Kerkini on a much smaller scale is an enclosed, man made water body used to irrigate surrounding land. A decision was made to take the minibus up onto the lake’s embankment and make a full circuit. But since most of the birds being seen were rather distant, I elected to stay behind and pay proper attention to photographing the many Fritillaries that were flying here.

I thought, mistakenly that up to four species were present but upon reviewing the pictures they were all found to be of Lesser Spotted and Knapweed Fritillary (pictured above). The latter common and widespread species varies greatly in appearance from region to region, within countries and even at particular sites. As on previous occasions I had fallen into the trap of assuming something new is being seen that is actually just the local form of Knapweed. Today’s butterflies did vary a lot in size and tone, and the same was true of the Lesser Spotted Fritillary.  A very tatty Large Wall Brown* (pictured below) was also observed here.

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Worn Large Wall Brown

The trip’s other two lifers were an ageing Eastern Festoon * (pictured below, left) seen near Vironia, and a Lattice Brown (below, right) in the Mount Mavrovouni foothills, both on 9th. The latter occurs throughout Greece at the western edge of its mainly Middle Eastern breeding range, and spends much time concealed in the interior shade of bushes or small trees.

The full species list for the trip was Eastern Festoon*, Scarce Swallowtail, Black-veined White*, Southern Small White*, Green-veined White, Orange Tip, Clouded Yellow, Eastern Wood White*, Green Hairstreak, Sooty Copper, Holly Blue, Green-underside Blue, Iolas Blue*, Silver-studded Blue, Brown Argus, Chapman’s Blue*, Common Blue, Duke of Burgundy, Southern White Admiral, Red Admiral, Painted Lady, Knapweed Fritillary, Lesser-spotted Fritillary*, Queen of Spain Fritillary*, Speckled Wood, Small Heath, Meadow Brown, Wall Brown, Northern Wall Brown*, Large Wall Brown*, Lattice Brown*, Grizzled Skipper and Dingy Skipper.

Greek Macedonia 3: Walks in the Mavrovouni Hills – 9 & 12th May

Mount Mavrovouni (1179m) rises to the west of Lithotopus, and between the peak and Lake Kerkini stretch foothills that offer good hiking country. During this series’ Naturetrek tour our group twice followed tracks uphill in search of certain birds. On both occasions weather conditions were overcast, which was a pity because these trails were very wild flower rich and struck me as excellent butterfly habitat. I was at once reminded here of the Algarve hills in which I had lost myself during a memorable May in 2014 (see here then scroll down).

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A view south-west from Kerkini village

On the morning of Tuesday 9th, while making a circuit of Kerkini by road we stopped to walk the first track to look for Olive Tree Warbler. This large, heavy-billed warbler winters in eastern and southern Africa and has a fairly localised breeding distribution from the Balkans through Greece and Turkey eastward to Syria. 95% of it’s world breeding population is concentrated into that relatively small range. The species frequents open woodlands, olive groves and orchards from where it typically sings in cover and is difficult to locate.

Griekse Spotvogel determination

Olive Tree Warbler © rights of owner reserved

I had seen this bird once before in Cyprus back in November 2011 when I first started travelling. It was one of several good sightings not accepted from an unknown visitor by the Cyprus bird recorder: the others being Blue-cheeked Bee-eater, Great Black-headed Gull, Red-throated Pipit and Rufous-tailed Rock Thrush. The one accepted record from that trip was Pied Kingfisher that was the only bird I wasn’t sure about myself, having been observed into the sun. But I digress, the point being I now wished to prove I had been right about OTW.

A Black-headed Bunting was singing loudly from a tree top as we set out, then this bright local dignitary seemed to follow us up the track. A fairly large Bunting, it breeds across much of south-eastern Europe, wintering in India and south-east Asia. It is found in open grassland and scrub habitats including agricultural land, and often perches prominently on tree tops or overhead wires. Three different Shrikes – Red-backed, Woodchat and Masked  – were also encountered during the two visits described here.

Eventually Olive Tree Warbler song was heard from within an olive grove to one side of the track. We played a phone app recording to try to entice this bird nearer but it didn’t show any interest. Then what should appear out of the grove but another Masked Shrike, one of more than a dozen we encountered through the tour. This bird has a very similar song to OTW and like other Shrikes a talent for mimicry.

So was it this Shrike we had been listening to? No, as we watched that vocal bandito a large, pale warbler came into the same tree to check things out then moved on again. The second bird was our OTW that had ignored a recording of the real thing in favour of a mimic. Unfortunately the experience did nothing to remove all doubt about my Cyprus sighting, as I had identified that past bird by its hard clicking “tack” contact call that was not heard this time.

I have a thing about wild Arum lilies, three varieties of which have colonised very successfully my wildlife garden at home. Dragon Arum (Dracunculus vulgaris) is one of the most dramatic plants in the aroid family, being prized by collectors despite the foul smell when in bloom. I had not found one growing in the wild until now. This tuberous perennial is seen from April to July in rocky places and dry hillsides, generally at low altitudes. In the Mediterranean region of Europe it occurs from Corsica and Sardinia east towards Turkey.

Whilst distracted by that exotic beauty I apparently missed a good though distant candidate for Eleonora’s Falcon, that would have been a ninth bird lifer for the trip. Oh well … it was a speck sighting anyway! Four other raptors were observed in these hills or along the road below them over the two days: Short-toed and Booted Eagle, Black Kite and Peregrine; all of which breed in the area.

On the morning of our final day in Macedonia (12th) we explored a second track further to the north-west to try again for Olive-tree Warbler. We were not successful this time but did find the trip’s second breeding pair of Eastern Subalpine Warbler. These offered only fleeting glimpses of themselves, just like the first pair. Hawfinch (not seen by me) and Cirl Bunting (pictured below) were also active along the trail. I would now hope to recognise the latter’s calls in future, it being a bird that I suspect I have at times failed to notice in the southern European field.

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Cirl Bunting

The Mavrovouni Hills certainly had a capacity to produce the unusual. I do not over concern myself generally with wild plants, other than to appreciate their place and beauty in the habitat being experienced, since it is not possible to deal adequately with everything in the field. But our tour leader here was a very knowledgeable botanist who would point out plants of note that we came across, so I couldn’t help but get interested at times.

After the Dragon Arum a tall, trackside Lizard Orchid (above, left) was for me the next most exotic wild plant highlight. Usually rare they occur across southern Europe from Spain to the Balkans, though there are also English populations in East Anglia and Kent. I do not know the exact species of the insect (above, right) but it is certainly a prince amongst Lacewings. I have seen smaller members of that flying insect family, also known as Ant-lions many times before but this one was rather more spectacular.

Rouwmees determination

Sombre Tit © rights of owner reserved

Friday’s most memorable bird encounter was with a foraging flock of Sombre Tit. This is a rather bulky tit species with broad head, strong bill and dullish plumage. Roughly the size of Great Tit, it resembles Willow Tit more in colouration but with a noticeably brownish-grey cap. Sombre Tit inhabits open forest, orchard and riverside habitats mostly at middle and low altitude. The species is resident across much of south-east Europe that constitutes 75% of its global breeding range.

In two fairly brief visits to the Mavrovouni Hills we had thus observed an excellent sample of birds for the habitat, as well as some interesting insects and plants. Had the conditions been sunny I expect there would have been much more to see and I would very much like to return here at some time to do the area justice.

Greek Macedonia 2: Days in the Belles Mountains – 8, 10 & 12th May

DSC_0513The huge, man-made reservoir of Lake Kerkini was created by flooding an area of former marshland lying between the Belles Mountains on the Greece / Bulgaria border in the north, and the Mavrovouni Mountains to the south-west. On three separate days during the Naturetrek tour I joined here our group visited a number of locations in the northern range that is split in two by the River Strimonas valley.

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The Strimonas valley and river with mountains beyond

On Monday (8th) we drove up into the mountains to the east of this divide. Our first stop was another quarry location near a town Sidirokastro. This reminded me of many places visited in southern France and we encountered some of the same birds. Several each of Black-eared Wheatear and Blue Rock Thrush adorned the cliff tops while the air space was filled by Barn and Red-rumped Swallow and Crag Martin. But once again Rock Nuthatch that are said to breed at the site eluded us.

From there we drove eastward into the mountain range, stopping at a raptor viewpoint. There some of my colleagues scanned the distantly soaring birds, picking out Long-legged amongst the Buzzards. But as is well known at home I am not greatly motivated by specks in the sky, though a Griffon Vulture here must be quite a record for the area as well as a very big speck. This was also a Masked Shrike site and the resident pair tantalised us from bush top perches.

Unsurprisingly I became distracted by what was happening on the ground. This (below) is Chapman’s Blue, a butterfly I had pondered over before in the southern European field, but not ID’d conclusively until now. The underwing pattern in the right hand picture exactly matches the illustration in Collins. Lesser Spotted Fritillary, the trip’s most frequently seen butterfly was also flying here but not much else.

We now drove onward in search of warblers. I was impressed by our tour leader, Phil Thompson’s skill in listening for birds through the minibus window while driving. Eventually we stopped to observe a roadside Woodchat Shrike and he heard an Eastern Orphean Warbler that flew further along the road. We followed but could not relocate it, then stopped instead at a corner where we found a nesting pair of Eastern Subalpine Warbler. I have not searched for small, skulking birds such as these two warblers when birding alone in southern Europe because that is too much like hard work. Hence another reason for coming out with a group and expert leader this time, and didn’t my tour colleagues just love the skulkers and specks!

This was our outward turning point and on turning back both the Woodchat and another Masked Shrike were active again where the Orphean Warbler had been a short time earlier. We played a phone app recording to try to attract the last-named and it came out of cover and crossed the road towards us. This big chunky warbler then perched briefly and prominently in the bare top of a thorny shrub, giving everyone excellent views. On my scale of lifers this one is fairly huge as its western equivalent is one of those elite though dwindling stragglers of my south-west Europe wish list.

After lunch back at the watch point we returned to Sidirokastro where a rock face in the town centre is another reliable location for Rock Nuthatch that birding tours to the area all visit. There was even an ice cream parlour opposite the cliff in the past where birders could sit and watch, but that has now shut down. Indeed it was third time lucky for us as this large, pale Nuthatch bobbed and ducked on a ledge close to twin mud nests that he would sometimes fly onto; an easy observation in the end (lifer, pictured below).

We now continued east from the town along the Strimonas valley towards the Bulgarian border. In this area one wood that holds several Woodpecker species is another regular stop for visiting bird tours. The dense canopy here made me pessimistic about gaining Syrian, the one remaining pecker I still need after April’s Estonia trip. The white-barked Maples that we looked up into were an imposing sight though our tally was indeed one Great Spotted Woodpecker. But a superb find here was Sombre Tit, the trip’s eighth lifer and my 450th career bird, but more of that species in the next post.

The site had become flooded in places at our chosen entry point, so we went to look for alternative ways in. Stopping at the head of one track we came across what I am assured is the butterfly of the trip. Iolas Blue (pictured below, left) is a rarity much sought by collectors, having a patchy and highly localised distribution across south-eastern Europe. One of the largest Blues, its status is not helped by robbers stripping it’s food plant of the seed pods in which the larvae feed, in search of eggs.

Two more Masked Shrike (pictured above, right) were also active at this stopping place. Though at the edge of its breeding range in northern Greece, we did very well for this charming little Shrike through the week, indeed coming across eight separate individuals on this day (8th). We also disturbed a Middle Spotted Woodpecker that flew away calling loudly. I recognised that sound at once from my recent experience of the species in Estonia.

On Wednesday (10th) we penetrated the Belles Mountains further to the south-east above a town Serres. Access into this area is mostly by dirt roads but on one peak, Mount Vrondou (c1900m) there is a small scale ski centre and so a metalled road goes all the way up. The landscape and montane habitat here is Alpine rather than Mediterranean and within it we set out to explore a very different bird mix to that occurring at lower elevations. At the summit the stand-out birds were Common Crossbill and Tree Pipit, while much of the other bird life was of common species from home such as Robin, Chaffinch, Chiffchaff and Lesser Whitethroat.

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The peak of Mount Vrondou

For the rest of the day we made our way back down the mountain, stopping at various locations. Our first walk was along a track into the mixed beech and pine forest that cloaks the slopes immediately below the summit. The main interest for me here was butterflies that will be dealt with in a separate post. These included two new (for me) regional butterfly species, Northern Wall Brown and Eastern Wood White.

Below the treeline we stopped for our picnic lunch on a grassy, rocky slope that we shared with three different lizard species. The haunting song of Woodlark revealed their own presence here, and Red-backed Shrike was seen again. Fortunately in this trip’s company I am able to put names to the reptiles. In this collage (below) are Erhard’s Wall Lizard, Balkan Wall Lizard and a male Common Green Lizard in its breeding colours.

This (below, left) is something I haven’t seen before: a Dung Beetle rolling dung on which their larvae feed in the nest. They apparently prefer to go in reverse so I’m not sure how they get the dung back home. Well I have to write about something other than birds in this journal from time to time! The right hand one for obvious reasons is a Rhinocerous Horn Beetle. There were a lot of Green-winged Orchid growing on these slopes so I have included a picture.

Lower down again we came upon one of the region’s key mountain birds Rufous-tailed Rock Thrush, only my second and another of those sightings that were not accepted in Cyprus. The male (pictured below) kept us amused as it moved around a slope below a bend in the road. This altitude specialist breeds only above 1500m in habitat such as this or higher Alpine meadows. The striking red, slate grey and dark blue colouration is offset by a white patch in the middle of the back that resembles a large dropping from on high. Another Red-backed Shrike and Cirl Bunting were also active at this last site on 10th.

In the early afternoon of our final day in Macedonia we took a walk through a scenic forest site to the west of the Strimonas divide, above a village Ano Poroia. Here my tour colleagues enjoyed themselves craning their necks in search of woodland birds. The week’s only Black Woodpecker was heard but very little actually revealed itself. For me the main interest was a second dragonfly lifer for the trip. I had been led to expect Eastern Spectre (pictured below) by the tour leader, but still mistook it at first for Blue-eyed Hawker for obvious reasons. Doh! – we were in quite the wrong habitat for the latter.

This small and sleek dragonfly is common in most of its range from the Balkans and northern Greece east through the Caucasus, into northern Israel and as far as Afghanistan. It occurs strictly around fast-flowing and shaded streams, and is crepuscular in habit with a preference for suspended perches in semi-shade, as in the picture. Mature males are brown-black with crisp blue markings, with “inverted 7” antehumeral stripes on the thorax. Another diagnostic is the short dark pterostigma (wing dots).

The Belles Mountains had produced four additions to my bird life list, four previously unseen (for me) butterflies and one new dragonfly. More birds – Syrian Woodpecker, Eastern Bonelli’s Warbler, Collared and Semi-collared Flycatcher (all potential lifers), even Nutcracker and Western Capercaillie – may also be found here but these could require a lot of time and effort to locate. Our group’s approach was not one of intensive dawn to dusk birding since everyone had other wildlife interests too, as this post reflects. Despite the motivation for growing my avian life list, just being in beautiful wild places and enjoying the habitat often becomes more important during days in the field abroad; and so it proved again in Greek Macedonia.

Lake Kerkini in Greek Macedonia: 6 – 12th May

This is by any standards a beautiful place. From my window I could see the mountain tops along which runs the border between the Greek region of Macedonia and Bulgaria. Below them is tucked the Ramsar designated wetland of Lake Kerkini that is famed amongst birders for it’s breeding populations of Dalmatian Pelican and Pygmy Cormorant, transient White Pelican and for hosting most of the European population of Lesser White-fronted Geese in winter. I have come here with the wildlife tour operator Naturetrek in search of more bird life list additions, and to sample this region’s butterflies and dragonflies.

As the northern landscape in Estonia last month was dour, samey and, well northern so this southern spot on my 2017 birding agenda is a rich and scenic patchwork of farms, fields and settlements. Tourists who come to Macedonia other than wildlife enthusiasts are mostly Greek city dwellers with a mind for rural tranquillity in summer. And there is plenty of that to be enjoyed here. The pace of life is gentle, the roads lightly trafficked to say the least, and I didn’t set eyes on a McDonalds or Costa all week.

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Yours truly: “So the story goes, this is a tale that must be told *”

In recent years when birding abroad solo in Cyprus and Portugal I stayed in mass market hotels then hired a car to get out to where the wildlife is. Our base for seven days here is the private Limneo Guest House in the village of Hrisochorafa, just to the east of the lake. Catering for the needs of visiting bird tours is amongst our host Nikos Gallios’ eco-tourism interests. He is well known in the Greek birding community so has the local bird knowledge with which to brief tour leaders. He also knows all the taverna owners around the village’s main square and hence arranged an authentic range of evening meals for us.

This is only the second time that Naturetrek has visited Kerkini in spring, the first occasion being a few years ago. The tour was researched by our leader Phil Thompson who knows the area intimately. I have been wanting to visit Macedonia for some time and this tour offered the best available agenda. We arrived here in the early afternoon on 6th May after a flight from London Gatwick to Thessaloniki, then following a light lunch set out to reconnoitre.

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Kerkini, a man-made irrigation reservoir is fed at it’s north-eastern corner by the River Strimonas that flows out of Bulgaria and is dammed at the south-east. We drove a short distance from our base to a spot about half way along the lake’s eastern embankment. As we approached this place a skein of White Pelican flew overhead to one side of our vehicle, the trip’s first lifer. Having seen just that solitary Dalmatian before dozing its time away in Cornwall, I had not appreciated Pelicans as soaring birds until now. They are certainly magnificent. Within 15 minutes of leaving the vehicle I had gained two more lifers: Pygmy Cormorant and Levant Sparrowhawk, both as fly pasts. Phil was especially pleased to have connected with the latter so early in proceedings.

We were in an area of small scale agriculture divided up by drainage ditches and stands of tall trees. As we walked around Great Reed Warbler were keeping up an intermittent rasping from watery hiding places, distant Hoopoe could be heard here and there, and both European Bee-eater and Golden Oriole were going about their own business in their own ways. As throughout this trip, the song of concealed Nightingale filled the air wherever we went. Given such a birds-cape memories of the Algarve countryside in spring came flooding back inside me. At one pool a Penduline Tit was seen carrying food and we located the nest.

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Dalmatian Pelicans (sub-adult)

Returning to the vehicle we drove up onto the embankment then south along it to Lithotopus by the Kerkini Dam, stopping from time to time. More White Pelican passed overhead and further Pygmy Cormorant occupied drainage ditches here and there below. Out on the lake lone Dalmatian Pelican or sometimes twos and threes (pictured above) were seen in places, these being sub-adults with a yellow bill pouch.

Arriving in Lithotopus, we parked to scan the area downstream from the dam. I walked ahead of the group and heard a Reed Warbler-like song coming from scrub, not reeds on both sides of the road. Surely Eastern Olivaceous Warbler, an important lifer since it is missing from my Cyprus list. I had heard the separated western equivalent once but not set eyes on either before. When the group arrived my find was confirmed. We all then observed both individuals moving in and out of cover, the most striking feature being the long, pointed and upheld bill. This south-eastern European breeder was often heard and sometimes seen on many subsequent occasions through the week.

Below the dam a fine array of large water birds served to get us in the mood for the days ahead. Pelicans loiter here, Squacco Heron is frequent; while Spoonbill, Great White Egret and White Stork all come and go. Only my second ever Black Stork was also present at this location today and again when we passed by later in the week. As we walked back to the minibus, a perched Common Clubtail dragonfly was sunning itself at the road side. This had been quite a reconnoitre and a taste of things to come.

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Common Clubtail courtesy of Alan Skull

On Sunday (7th) from the same start point we drove the other way along the eastern embankment and eventually into the lake’s north east corner. Most of the previous day’s birds were present again starting with Penduline Tit. We watched one coming and going from the previously located nest and soon became aware of others in the vicinity. One of them perched at length on an overhead wire, quite a novel way in which to observe a reed dwelling species. PT is plentiful here and these masked bandits’ calls were heard from several locations in the hours ahead.

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Landscape from Kerkini’s eastern embankment

As we drove northward atop the embankment European Bee-eater kept going up from the grassy slopes below our vehicle. There were dozens of these colourful and charming icons of southern European days in the field here. Two different butcher birds were encountered: a subly-toned Lesser Grey Shrike, this region’s default grey shrike in spring and summer; and also Red-backed Shrike half concealed in shrub tops. Pygmy Cormorant and Black-crowned Night Heron were both observed whiling away their time in a drainage channel. A leggy Tawny Pipit foraged at one side of the track and a Black-headed Wagtail also put in an appearance. Everywhere we turned it seemed there was something to add to this impressive roll call.

On the lake side of the track the hunched, ochre-necked profile of Squacco Heron was a frequent sight. Small numbers of Dalmatian Pelican drifted lazily on the surface in places, and larger concentrations could be seen more distantly. From Kerkini’s north-east corner the lake’s drowned forest stretches westward but at the moment this area is unusually dry. The trip’s first Purple Heron was seen standing way out in the open amongst the other herons and egrets there. And over the water in places the dark shapes of Whiskered Tern stood out amongst the busy Common Tern and gulls.

In places as we progressed there were concentrations of Scarce or Blue Chaser dragonflies (pictured above) in the track-side vegetation. Amongst the dozens of powder-blue and black males, with their striking blue eyes and black pinch marks on the abdomen from mating, I watched and photographed both deep yellow females and orange teneral males for the first time here. So that will be one less odo task off my summer’s agenda in more difficult habitat back in blighty this coming season. I am particularly pleased with these pictures (above) and felt a happy bunny as the group sat down to our picnic lunch at journey’s end.

In amongst the many Blue Chasers the sunlight kept catching smaller numbers of a sleek, iridescent gold looking dragonfly. These were female White-tailed Skimmer (pictured above), a previously unseen species for me that ranges patchily across south-eastern Europe. In the female (right) the white tail stands out clearly. I didn’t see any blue-toned mature males today, but they were seen in a few different places this week. The left hand image was captured at Mandraki on the north shore on our final day. The white tail is far less apparent, being in males a feature of the anal appendages.

After lunch we drove along the Strimonas valley to check out some abandoned carp pools. On the way we found possibly three Black-headed Bunting (below left) on overhead wires. This is another important lifer that owes that status to being absent from my Cyprus list, since I was there rather too early in 2012 for their season. This is by no means a scarce breeder in south-east Europe, favouring open country with lightly dispersed bushes and trees.

As we watched the RBB today the trip’s second Levant Sparrowhawk went up, showing to good effect its generally pale colouration except for the sooty wing tips. A migratory raptor, they winter from Egypt east to Iran, and breed in woodlands from the Balkans to southern Russia. My second ever Long-legged Buzzard, a resident species across south-east Europe, was pointed out rather distantly soon after we saw the LS.

Our last location today was a quarry above a village Vironia a little to the lake’s north-east, to seek out Rock Nuthatch. There we came across a courting pair of Masked Shrike, a bird that is right at the western edge of its breeding range in Macedonia. The male’s display behaviour is likewise unusual to witness. I had self found three of this species previously on the slopes of Mount Olympus in Cyprus in April 2012, those being amongst the stand out birding moments of that trip.

Also observed at the Vironia quarry today were Black-eared Wheatear, Red-rumped Swallow and Spotted Flycatcher. Three different raptors, another Honey Buzzard and one each of Osprey and Golden Eagle all put in appearances overhead, this being a reliable location for the last-named. But of Rock Nuthatch at the first attempt there was no sign.

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Dalmatian (left) and White Pelican (sub-adults)

On Tuesday (9th) we completed a circuit of Kerkini by road. First we visited another quarry site near Himaros, south-east of the dam where Lesser Spotted and Booted Eagles were amongst the soaring raptors. Next we stopped in Lithotopus to scan the lake from a roadside viewing area. A swimming White Pelican (pictured above) was amongst the Dalmatians here. I was surprised by how difficult the two species were to tell apart on the water. The sub-adult birds we observed are both buffish grey above and dirty white below. Dalmatian has a shaggy mane on the back of its neck while White has more of a crest, as well as a pinkish face and more beady eye.

But in flight identification is much easier since White shows a lot more black on the underwings, in roughly the same proportion as White Stork. In adults the flight feathers are black and the coverts white, while for Dalmatian the flight feathers are grey. From Lithotopus we took the road that runs parallel with the south-western shore towards the village of Kerkini. Along that road we walked a track up into the Mavrovouni hills to the west that will be the subject of a separate post.

Stopping for lunch in Kerkini village we headed out to the fishing jetty from where boat trips also depart. There a few more Pelicans were loitering out on the water and both Squacco (pictured above) and Night Heron stood sentinel amongst their own allies at the water’s edge. I was amused by one Dalmatian that came in to land on the surface with the profile of a jumbo jet, not having seen this before. Fortunately a gull that was under the big bird’s landing path did see it eventually. There was also a colony of Common Tern amongst which Whiskered came and went.

The weather was still deteriorating so the decision was made to cancel our afternoon boat trip. Guess what, by our scheduled departure of 2:30pm the cloud dispersed and glorious sunshine prevailed for the rest of the afternoon. Now we drove on to what is known as Mandraki Harbour on the northern shore. Here a track leads down to a causeway out into the lake from where breeding structures provided for the Pelicans can be viewed. To one side of the causeway is a large reed bed and on the other Kerkini’s drowned forest stretches into the middle distance (pictured below).

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The view from Mandraki Harbour

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Dalmatian Pelican

Kerkini is the most productive lake for fish in all of Greece, as is evidenced by the numbers of Pelicans and Cormorants here. The site and its associated breeding programme has been key to the recovery of Dalmatian Pelican as a European breeding species. Prior to the provision of the breeding islands the most DP chicks raised in one season was around 130, but that number rose to more than 200 in 2016. Earlier wooden structures had been vulnerable to removal by local fishermen.

In the drowned forest beyond Mandraki groups of Pygmy Cormorant (pictured above)were sunning themselves in the trees, their brown heads and small bills being readily apparent. This localised south-east European breeder favours lakes and rivers with big reed beds, often associating with Herons and Egrets. There are between two and three thousand of the Coot-sized PC at Kerkini. When seen in proximity with Greater Cormorant, that number 25k here, the size difference is striking.

Out in the reed bed Great Reed Warbler belted out their strident song from reed mace heads. We picked out the trip’s second Black Stork soaring against a hillside, rising higher and higher on a thermal prior to it’s onward departure. Then a Little Bittern settled into a marshy area beside the causeway, the second that we saw on this day .

I also acquired some froggy pictures for the trip here. There must have been hundreds even thousands of Greek Marsh Frog out in the water lilies and marshy lake margins. From time to time seeming Mexican waves of their chuckling, cackling chorus would erupt from all around us before fading again with a little flourish at the end. European Pond Terrapin was also present.

We returned home via Vironia as we had a day earlier. Between the village and the Strimonas just to the south two tracks are worth a visit. On the 8th we explored the first of these along a woodland edge where an array of insects were flying in the early evening sunshine. Green-eyed Hawker dragonfly and Southern White Admiral butterfly were both new for the trip here and the most numerous odo was once again Blue Chaser. The second track skirts a marshy site. There (on 9th) an ageing Eastern Festoon was amongst the butterfly highlights. I also came across another female Blue Chaser dragonfly and also a few female Scarlet Darter.

On the road between that location and our base Red-footed Falcon were seen on both days. On 8th we had first sighted two males in a field to one side, then my first female of that species perched on overhead wires. Unlike the males who soon flew off she was very tolerant of our presence, and having the front passenger seat at that moment I didn’t waste the photo opportunity. On 9th there were five males and two females, all foraging for insects in roadside fields. This small raptor is known to migrate in groups in order to maximise feeding opportunities before dispersing.

It had been an unsettled weather pattern all week but finally on Thursday (11th) conditions were right for our boat trip on Lake Kerkini. At 10am in bright sunshine we met our host at Kerkini village, where he keeps a boat. We had heard horror stories over the preceding days about the soakings endured by some of Nicos’ clients. But the torrential downpours had also been a blessing since the water level would now be a little higher, allowing better access to the drowned forest area where the best birding experiences are to be had.

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Kerkini mood shot

We set out across the perfectly calm lake surface towards the north-east corner, crossing paths with loafing Pelicans here and there and many more Great Crested Grebe. As we approached the drowned forest some Black-necked Grebe could also be picked out in the distance. All three marsh terns are present here and White-winged Black Tern made a number of fly pasts, showing the two tone patterns and black saddle of their breeding plumage to good effect. But it was the Whiskered Tern (pictured below) that provided the best photo opportunities, arrayed on perches extending out of the water.

We had reached the drowned forest and now moved slowly into the trees in which a hefty chunk of Kerkini’s Great Cormorant population was nesting. In amongst the tree borne colonies were some Pygmy Cormorant and an array of herons and Spoonbill all raising young on countless nests. This wildlife spectacle can only be enjoyed from the water in a boat. Because the lake is so shallow at this end, a rise or fall of just half a metre can mean the difference between viewing the birds at a few metres or everything being up to a kilometre away.

I particularly liked the Black-crowned Night Heron that here at Kerkini do not seem to have read the script that they are meant to be night herons, roosting half concealed in cover through the day then emerging at dusk. This (below) has to be my bird image of the week.

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Dreamy Black-crowned Night Heron – just look at lovely me!

Lastly we drifted at appropriate distance past the Pelican nesting structures. From Mandraki I had thought the new, specially created islands were covered in birds but closer to I could see the structure was composed of white rocks with Pelicans mostly on the top. Dalmatian Pelican is a globally endangered species that has suffered dramatic population declines from wetland drainage and persecution. They normally require secluded islands on which to breed, so prior to the early years of this century they had not done so here.

After the first wooden platforms were provided from 2002 these were immediately accepted, the result being the first recorded expansion of the Dalmatian’s breeding range in more than 150 years. Kerkini’s breeding population currently numbers around 250 pairs of Dalmatian with maybe another 100 birds present in total. In 2016 White Pelican bred successfully for the first time with 11 pairs raising six chicks. Up to 2000 of the latter pass through the lake from March to September.

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Late in the afternoon of my final day in Macedonia, we returned to Mandraki to say our farewells to Lake Kerkini. This time we had the causeway almost to ourselves. I caught sight of two, then three, then four Dalmatian Pelican approaching from afar and photographed them as they came nearer. I regret not managing better Pelican pictures on this trip, but with it being the height of the breeding season the need to minimise disturbance meant that we just did not get close enough. Most of the birds encountered were hence non-breeding sub-adults.

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Dalmatian Pelican amongst Pygmy Cormorant

As the week had started with an unusually showy Penduline Tit so it ended here with another that, like the local Night Herons had not read the script. We watched this particular individual feeding in the top of a Weeping Willow. Squacco Heron were all around us and provided some photo opportunities of their own. I have at no time seen so many of this charismatic small heron as this week around such an amazing wetland.

At last, possibly sensing our imminent departure the surrounding marsh frogs treated us to one final and spectacular serenade … and with that we left all this behind. Lake Kerkini had not disappointed and I will carry its memories for a long time. So the story goes … this is a tale that’s just been told* (*Lyric © S Hudson / M Kennedy).

But other major wildlife sites in northern Greece are not so sympathetically managed for birds as Lake Kerkini. In 2008 Birdwing (Bird Watching In Northern Greece) was set up by British birder Steve Mills and his partner Hilary Koll to raise awareness of issues impacting on birds in Greece, and raise funds for conservation and restoration of habitat. The organisation also aims to bring more eco-tourists to important bird areas, provide education for children and local adults about birds, and to lobby political decision makers. Steve is also the author of the region’s definitive birding guide: Birdwatching in Northern Greece that I invested in a copy of before leaving Kerkini. All proceeds from sales of the book go directly to supporting Birdwing’s work. Donations may also be made via the web site.