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Greece RETURNING! Lake Kerkini in Winter

A 5-day, single-centre, small group birdwatching tour to Greece

This super short tour to northern Greece focuses on the abundant birdlife found around wonderful Lake Kerkini - the most important wintering site in Europe for the globally threatened Dalmatian Pelican and the rare Greater Spotted Eagle. January is the best time to visit, when the number and variety of birds present at the lake reaches a peak. Participants on our last four tours have all enjoyed stunning close encounters with the pelicans as well as superb views of Spotted Eagle - not to mention Pygmy Cormorant, Greater Flamingo, White-tailed Eagle, Syrian Woodpecker, Sombre Tit, Western Rock Nuthatch and many more!

Tour Dates

2020

Available

Leaders
Gary Elton
Martin Hrouzek

Max Group Size: 10
Duration: 5 Days

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Cost: £1295

inc return flights from London Gatwick to Thessaloniki with Easyjet

Deposit: £300

Single Supp: £95
Land Only: £1195

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Dalmatian Pelicans close on water Kerkini Greece GSmall 0114 B11P5778

Lake Kerkini is the most important wintering ground for the endangered Dalmatian Pelican, which should be looking at their magnificent best when we visit in late January! © tour participant Gordon Small, wildlifeimagesgs.com

Lake Kerkini, in northern Greece, is one of the most important wintering areas for birds in Europe. The largest national park in Greece and a designated RAMSAR site (wetland of international importance), there are few places in Eastern Europe where birds overwinter in such large numbers. When hard frosts and snow arrive in Northern Europe and drive birds south, Kerkini assumes even greater importance - for it then becomes one of the chief wintering waters of the east, offering a relatively mild refuge, where hungry birds can still find plenty of food.

During the winter months, Kerkini’s open waters are the most important site in Europe for the globally threatened Dalmatian Pelican - the undisputed stars of the show on our winter birding tour to Greece! By taking a boat out on to the lake, we can expect to enjoy incredible close encounters with these magnificent birds - don't forget to bring your camera! Late January is the best time to visit, when many will also be sporting their full breeding regalia.

But there are lots of other great birds to watch for, too: Kerkini also holds significant numbers of Pygmy Cormorants and Greater Flamingos in winter, the latter a spectacular sight with their rose-red forewings and goose-like honking.

Wildfowl can be abundant on the lake, especially in January, when the huge rafts of Pochard can harbour scarcer species such as Red-crested Pochard, Ferruginous Duck or Smew. Small numbers of White-fronted Geese winter around the lake and the declining Lesser White-fronted Goose is a rare but regular visitor, too - pausing on its migration through here in January. Although the latter are not always present, our last two groups were lucky, finding a flock of 40 of these most attractive small geese.

Attracted by the throngs of ducks, geese and waders, Kerkini is also an excellent spot for birds of prey in winter. A key speciality is the very rare Greater Spotted Eagle and participants on all our previous winter tours have enjoyed excellent views. Four or more birds regularly winter here and are often to be seen hunting over the lakeshore; with their characteristic white-spotted, chocolate-brown plumage, juvenile birds are particularly attractive. White-tailed and Golden Eagles, Goshawk and Peregrine are among a range of other raptor possibilities to watch for - and the elusive Eagle Owl also showed well for two of our groups!

The setting is superb, with the snow-capped Belles Mountains soaring to more than 2000m beyond the northern shore of the lake and providing a dramatic backcloth as they sit astride the border with Bulgaria. The lakeside villages, fields, copses and wooded foothills add variety to our wetland birding and we shall devote some time to seeking other of Kerkini’s special birds during our stay. Spoonbill, Slender-billed Gull, Whiskered Tern, up to 7 species of woodpecker - including Grey-headed, Syrian and Middle Spotted - Great Grey Shrike, Sombre Tit, Rock Nuthatch, Short-toed Treecreeper, Water Pipit, Hawfinch, and Rock and Cirl Buntings are among a host of exciting finds on recent tours.

Situated just 60 miles north of Thessaloniki, and with relatively short drives from our comfortable hotel to all the key birding spots, Kerkini makes a superb destination for a single-centre winter birding break. January is the best month to visit, when the number and variety of birds at the lake usually reach a peak. And with the advantage of nonstop flights from London Gatwick direct to Thessaloniki, getting there is easy, too.

Our January 2020 tour will be guide Gary Elton's fourth trip to Lake Kerkini in winter. Wrap up warmly and join us for the thrill of birding at one of Europe’s most exciting winter wetlands!

White tailed and Spotted Eagles Kerkini Greece GSmall 0114 B11P4479

Immature White-tailed and (right) Greater Spotted Eagles over Lake Kerkini. Small numbers of the latter, the rarest of Europe's birds of prey, spend the winter at the lake © tour participant Gordon Small, wildlifeimagesgs.com

Day 1
FLY THESSALONIKI, KALOCHORI WETLANDS & KERKINI

Our winter birdwatching tour to Greece begins with a morning flight from London Gatwick to Thessaloniki, where our English-speaking Balkans specialist Martin Hrouzek will be waiting to welcome us. Lake Kerkini itself lies some 60 miles north of Thessaloniki (about an hour's drive over good roads), but - depending on flight times - we may detour along the way to explore the coastal wetlands at Kalochori.

In winter, this large expanse of coastal lagoons close to Thessaloniki is home to thousands of wildfowl, waders and gulls. Waders can be numerous along with Yellow-legged Gulls and small numbers of Mediterranean and Slender-billed Gulls. Other possible species to watch for here in winter include Red-breasted Merganser, Black-necked Grebe, Greater Flamingo, Spoonbill, Merlin, Marsh and Hen Harriers, Sandwich and Whiskered Terns, Kingfisher, Water Pipit and Penduline Tit.

We travel on to our comfortable hotel close to Lake Kerkini, where we stay for four nights. Night Lake Kerkini

Days 2 - 4
LAKE KERKINI & BELLES MOUNTAINS

Lake Kerkini is renowned as one of the finest wetland sites in all Europe. Thousands of waterfowl come here every winter to take advantage of this sheltered, south-facing, fish-rich lake. A designated RAMSAR site (wetland of international importance), the setting is superb: Kerkini nestles on a flood plain at the foot of the forested Belles Mountains, which straddle the border between Greece and neighbouring Bulgaria - just five miles away. Rising steeply to more than 2000m (6600ft), the tops of the mountains are likely to be snow-capped in winter and make for a dramatic backcloth to our stay.

You may be surprised to discover that the lake itself is manmade, having been created in 1932 following the damming of the Strymonas River that flows in from the mountains to the north. Its main purpose then was to collect and hold the spring meltwaters so as to prevent flooding of the surrounding area, and for irrigation of local crops in spring. 80 years on, Lake Kerkini now lies at the heart of Greece’s largest national park and is both the most important wetland in the country for wintering birds and a vital stopover for migrants - including those displaced by the onset of severe weather further north in the Balkans, Eastern Europe and Russia.

For winter birds, late January is the best time to visit. Peak numbers are then present at the lake - among them, thousands of Greater Flamingos and ‘Continental’ Great Cormorants. Elegant Great Egrets stalk the shallower margins and several hundred Pygmy Cormorants also winter here, while late or tardy 'summer' migrants can include Glossy Ibis, Spoonbill, Night Heron and Black Stork.

Best of all, Lake Kerkini is the most important wintering site in all Europe for the globally threatened Dalmatian Pelican - special not only because of their great rarity and the fact such significant numbers attend the lake (as many as 1000 birds may be present in winter), but also that they are so extraordinarily tame! In fact, these impressive but seemingly “lazy” birds have grown accustomed to following the local fishermen and flocks of feeding cormorants for an easy meal - with the result that one can approach the pelicans to within just a few feet allowing for superb photo opportunities!

As winter progresses, increasing numbers of Dalmatians will be acquiring full breeding plumage. Come January, we'll be able to appreciate the true beauty of their steel-tinted plumage with pale yellow breast patch and diagnostic curly crests, pale eyes and amazing red 'crocheted' pouches beneath their bills!We usually find the odd White Pelican in amongst them too - and offering quite a contrast with their distinctly rosy-pink plumage.

Upwards of 50,000 duck also winter on the lake, which holds internationally important concentrations of Mallard, Teal and especially Pochard. Lesser numbers of Great Crested Grebe, Shoveler, Wigeon, Pintail and Shelduck should be present in January too, and careful scrutiny of the flocks usually reveals one or two scarcer species such as Bewick's Swan, Red-crested Pochard, Ferruginous Duck and Smew.

With luck, small flocks of wintering White-fronted Geese (up to 1000 or so occur) around the lake's shores may conceal a few Lesser White-fronted Geese, a globally endangered species that has been declining for decades. Although not always present, numbers in recent winters have typically varied between 15 and 70 birds, and our January 2015 and 2016 groups both struck lucky, seeing flocks of 40 or more of these delicate small geese. While the Lessers are highly mobile and can be difficult to track down in the fields around the lake, their more rapid feeding action often helps us to pick them out amidst their larger cousins.

The lake is attractive to a wide range of waders and, in winter, we may find Avocet and Spotted Redshank along with Dunlin, Ruff and Green Sandpiper. Whooper Swans and Common Cranes also winter in small numbers around Kerkini's shore and other wetland species we could see or hear in winter include Kingfisher, Cetti’s Warbler and Water Pipit.

Lured by the abundance of wintering waterfowl around the lake, Kerkini is a superb spot for birds of prey. White-tailed Eagles are present year-round (and could be already breeding by the time of our visit in late January), and Golden Eagles frequently descend from the nearby mountains to hunt on the plain. Best of all, the lake is a noted haunt of the rare Greater Spotted Eagle! With four or more individuals regularly present around the lakeshore most years, they are one of the major highlights of a winter birding visit here. Goshawk, Eastern Imperial Eagle and Peregrine are sometimes about, and we have sometimes been lucky enough to enjoy wonderful views of Eagle Owl.

Away from the lake itself, Syrian Woodpecker is common in villages and winter visitors from the north can include Hen Harrier, Merlin and the solitary Great Grey Shrike. The sedentary Little Owl likes to perch openly on a pole or building, especially on warmer, sunny days, and we’ll check some old quarries and cliff faces along the northern side of the lake for Western Rock Nuthatch and Rock Bunting. Grey-headed, Green and Lesser Spotted Woodpeckers, Crested Lark, Short-toed Treecreeper, Spanish Sparrow, and Corn and Cirl Buntings also find a home around the lake.

On one day we plan to drive up into the foothills of the Belles Mountains, to investigate the well-preserved forests of beech and maple. In winter, most woodland species tend rove widely through the extensive forests looking for food, but we have good chances to encounter some of the region’s more attractive residents such as Black and Middle Spotted Woodpeckers, and Sombre Tit. In 2015, Hawfinch was a contender for commonest bird of the trip! Nights Lake Kerkini

Day 5
THESSALONIKI, FLY LONDON

Depending on flight schedules, there may be time for a quick look for birds around the village and lakeshore at Kerkini before travelling back to Thessaloniki this morning.

Bidding a reluctant farewell to Martin here, we catch Easyjet's afternoon flight back to London Gatwick, where our winter birdwatching tour to Greece concludes.

Eagle Owl ad Kerkini Greece Gary Elton Jan 2013 IMG 5232

Birding is full of surprises... this roadside Eagle Owl was a great find on a previous Limosa tour to Kerkini, watching us as we sat and ate our lunches beside the lake! © Gary Elton, Limosa

What To Expect

A 5-day birdwatching tour to northern Greece, focusing on the abundant birdlife to be found around wonderful Lake Kerkini - in winter, the most important site in Europe for the globally threatened Dalmatian Pelican, and the rare Greater Spotted Eagle.

Participants on our last four tours have all enjoyed stunning close encounters with the pelicans as well as superb views of Spotted Eagle - not to mention Pygmy Cormorant, Greater Flamingo, White-tailed Eagle, Syrian Woodpecker, Sombre Tit, Rock Nuthatch, Hawfinch and many more!

Late January is the best time to visit the lake, when the number and variety of wintering birds present at the lake reaches a peak. 

Kerkini is surely the best place in the world to see and photograph Dalmatian Pelican - don't forget your camera!

In late January, the sunrises here at around 07.45hrs and sets again about 17.45hrs, giving around 10 hours of daylight. We shall naturally want to make the most of our relatively short stay as well as the peak of early morning bird activity, so will be taking an early breakfast each day. 

Greece has a Mediterranean-type climate. In January, this means that the weather in northern Greece will be cold with daily temperatures typically in the range of 2-9C (36-48F).

Lake Kerkini is south facing and protected somewhat by the Belles Mountains, which lie immediately to the north. Freezing temperatures, frost and snow are infrequently recorded here in winter, but not impossible. January days are typically overcast, with up to 5 hours or so of sunshine. Some precipitation is to be expected, but average rainfall is low (25-40mm) during January. Winds are generally light at this time.

Birds

100-130 species

Mammals

Up to 5 species... not a huge number, but we have seen Otter, Red Squirrel and Wildcat on this tour!

Accommodation

Four nights accommodation at a comfortable medium-grade hotel close to the Lake - and ideally placed for birdwatching visits to the south, east and west of the lake as well as up into the mountains that form such a splendid backdrop immediately to the north.  All rooms are en suite.

Meals

All main meals are included in the tour price, commencing with lunch on Day 1 and concluding with breakfast on Day 5.

Breakfasts will be taken at the hotel. Lunches will usually be packed lunches from the hotel. Evening meals will either be taken in the hotel or at a nearby taverna. Greek food is delicious, with much of it locally sourced.

Walking

Easy, short walks. Wear sturdy, comfortable waterproof walking shoes or lightweight boots with stout corrugated soles for grip. (Wellington boots are not normally necessary for this tour)

Travel

We fly from London Gatwick to Thessaloniki, nonstop with Easyjet (currently the only airline offering direct flights on this route in winter).

Ground Transport   By minibus. The lake is only 60 miles (100km) from Thessaloniki and distances around the lake are relatively short, so we will not have to travel very far each day.

Boat Trips

Our tour price includes a boat trip out on to Lake Kerkini in traditional open fishing boats. The trip lasts about an hour and should reward us with some truly memorable close encounters with Dalmatian Pelican!

Sardinian Warbler m win B11P4776

Male Sardinian Warbler at Lake Kerkini © tour participant Gordon Small, wildlifeimagesgs.com

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  AUTHOR TESTINTRO TITLE
1 Jenepher Allen, Lake Kerkini, Greece tour ... An excellent trip, especially the vast concentrations of some species... [empty string]
2 Gordon Caw, Lake Kerkini, Greece tour ... I've never seen such vast numbers of birds and the variety of species was amazing - especially the raptors. An Eagle Owl close by - WOW! I really enjoyed Gary's leadership and Martin was superb - such a delightful and interesting man... Excellent value for money [empty string]
3 Ian Moig, Lake Kerkini, Greece tour ... Two cracking leaders. Terrific accom with friendly host and near to birding areas... [empty string]
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