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).


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.

bunting.cirl.1701 macedonia

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.