Birdwatching in Greece - The Cyclades Islands May 2000
These notes were compiled from observations taken during my family holiday, based in the Cyclades islands of Greece, with a side trip to the ancient site of Delphi and a day in Athens, between 20th May and 5th June. We visited the islands of Naxos, Santorini, Folegandros and Milos. Some birdwatching was done on most days.
Car hire is quite cheap on the islands (about £17 sterling per day) and is probably essential for anyone intending to get any serious birding done. When visiting Delphi we stayed at nearby Arachova, at about 1000m above sea level. the one car hire place in Arachova was permanently closed and the travel offices in Delphi itself wanted £40 a day.
Taxis were fairly cheap and we made it to the Mt. Parnassos Ski Centre, to the coast at Itea and back from Delphi a couple of times for less than the cost of a days hire, but the birding would definitely be more satisfying with a car. As most visitors to the area approach from Athens, it would be worth thinking about hiring a car in the city and driving.
The city centre would be pretty alarming for a foreigner (especially a Brit!) to drive in, but once onto the motorway (tolls) it seemed pretty straightforward. Arachova and Delphi were both rather expensive for overnight stops and the food in Arachova was mostly rather average AND expensive. If I returned I would consider staying in Livadia, about 30 miles (good roads) away in the Athens direction. The town looked fun and the cliffs behind the town must have birds. There were Cetti's Warblers calling near the town's bus station.
All banks in tourist areas have cash machines which accept major credit cards. This is a fast alternative to travellers cheques. Not all petrol stations also take plastic - check with them first.
There are no banks on Folegandros and changing money is rather difficult. No one accepts credit cards. It would be wise to ensure that you have enough cash for the whole period of your stay there. It is possible to change foreign currency and, probably, travellers cheques. The 'cafe' on the first square after the bus turnaround ( a good place for Eleonora's Falcon and Rock Partridge, amongst others) is one of the coolest places I have ever been. Order yourself a Meze Chef with a glass of raki and just sit and watch the world go by (very slowly).
Weather conditions were mostly good, although the first day in Arachova was cool with a few showers.
Date Places visited/mode of transport
21/05/00 Athens - Naxos (hydrofoil)
22/05/00 Naxos - north and centre of island (car)
23/05/00 Ascent of Mt. Zas, Naxos 1004m - a.m. South west Naxos - p.m. (car)
24/05/00 Naxos - centre - a.m. - west coast beaches p.m. (car)
25/05/00 Naxos-Santorini (hydrofoil) - exploring island (car)
26/05/00 Santorini (car)
27/05/00 Santorini - Folegandros (ferry). Agios Nicolaos beach (bus)
28/05/00 Folegandros - around Chora - a.m. Katergo beach - p.m.
29/05/00 Folegandros - Ambeli Beach (bus)
30/05/00 Folegandros - Milos (ferry). Milos - exploring (car)
31/05/00 Milos - exploring (car)
01/06/00 Milos - exploring (car). Night ferry to Athens.
02/06/00 Athens to Arachova (bus) - a.m. Exploring Delphi - p.m.
03/06/00 Mt. Parnassos - a.m. (taxi). Itea - p.m. (taxi/bus)
Naxos - the largest of the Cyclades and a place of some charm. It has mountains, some of Greece's best beaches, a couple of reservoirs, wooded plains, small villages, olive groves and ancient sites. The main town, Chora, is lively without being overwhelming. It is an island for people who like to walk and a determined birdwatcher should find something of interest. The ascent of Mt. Zas is a must. Set off as early as possible because after 11 a.m. the heat will start to make walking quite uncomfortable. We were back at the car by 12-ish, feeling sorry for the walkers who were starting off as we were coming down.
The ascent is no more difficult than, say, most of the hills in the English Lake District, but it starts from a long way above sea-level, so there is probably only 500m of height to gain. To reach the summit, drive through the village of Filoti and watch out for the turn off signposted Zas, about a kilometre further on. Follow this road to the end (not far) then park and follow the path, past the spring. From here on the route is waymarked (red and blue paint splodges) and cairned. A part of the early section crosses some slabs of rock which are quite exposed but passable with care. After these, most of the walking, although over rough ground, is fairly safe. After passing the Cave of Zeus (you'll need a powerful torch if you want to explore it), the path turns left below some small crags (near the start of the scree slope). Try to pick out the cairns here, as the path is indistinct. Head left and up until reaching the fence, where the path turns back right and should be easy to follow to the summit. Spend some time around the fenced/walled area, which marks the edge of some upland pastures. There are Cretzschmar's Buntings around here.
Naxos has a couple of reservoirs on the north west coast road. One is right by the road and held lots of Yellow-legged Gulls with varying mantle coloration and 5 waders. At least one was a Dunlin, two were probably Wood Sandpipers and the others went unidentified. A 'scope would be useful here. The second reservoir is a steepish climb just off the road, a little further north. I didn't make the climb, but it may be worth a look.
There are a few brackish lagoons around the west coast, near the beaches of Agia Anna, and Mikri Vigla, and near the airport. The winter of 1999/2000 had been very dry and all of these were in varying states of dehydration. I visited the airport lagoon in May 1999 and there were several pairs of Black-winged Stilt here and a few Grey Herons. This was completely dry in 2000. The Agia Anna pool was most interesting but still less than exciting.
The inland village of Kinidaros is supposed to have a path down to the coast along a stream. Access to this was near the obvious bridge on the Chora side of the village. The path was easy to follow and rather pleasant, but was blocked after a mile or so. There were a few common birds around (Olivaceous & Sardinian Warbler) as well as terrapins, frogs and quite a few snakes. A little patience might produce more species.
Santorini - spectacular but unashamedly touristy. Santorini has very few birds. Sunset watching in the village of Oia gave entertaining views of Alpine Swifts, but that was about it.
Folegandros - is adorable. Stay up in Hora, at the top of the cliffs. The Anenomilos apartments are expensive but spectacularly placed. A room with a view there should guarantee a variety of interesting birds, including Eleonora's Falcon and Rock Partridge. It was below Anenomilos were we got a very brief view of a bird which just might have been a Wallcreeper. One of my sons directed me to a bird below us (there is a view point at the bus turnaround). It flew vertically up the cliff and round a corner, below Anenomilos. I got my binoculars on it for maybe half a second and am convinced that I saw a curved bill.
We stayed in the charming Hotel Polikandia, where double rooms for a tenner seemed very good value.
There is a tiny olive grove just outside Hora, on the port road. This is surprisingly good, as there are very few trees on the island. Lots of Wheatears and Spotted Flycatchers are present, but pride of place went to a splendid Icterine Warbler, presumably a late migrant.
In 1999 I saw, briefly, what I thought may have been an Isabelline Wheatear here. Perhaps these dozen or so trees are full of migrants during April. I'd be fascinated to hear from anyone who visits during peak spring passage.
Anyone who enjoys beaches should give Ambeli in the north of the island a try. It is a longish walk and there are no facilities, so take food and water, but the swimming is superb. We tried to get to Katergo beach (apparently the best on the island) using the informal path (i.e. no path at all!). We nearly got there but were prevented by impassable cliffs a few hundred metres from the beach. There is a cart track, which is a longer walk, but should at least guarantee that you would reach your intended destination. There was one major compensation. Shortly before turning back I noticed a large raptor flying towards us. We were among some large boulders and were not easily seen. The bird was clearly an eagle and we watched it approach for some time, until it passed within maybe 20-30 metres of where we waited. It was an adult Bonelli's eagle - my first ever. I can't believe that they breed on Folegandros, which is small and not exactly mountainous, but they are believed to breed on nearby Naxos, so perhaps this bird was from there. Whatever, it was an exhilarating experience which more than made up for the pointless walk.
Milos - this was my first visit to Milos and I will almost certainly be returning. Milos is actually pretty good for birds - maybe as good as Naxos. There is a reasonable lagoon at Chivadolimni which had a resident Audouin's Gull (we visited four times and it was always there) and there are salt pans by the airport. These were dry and birdless when we visited, but the road crosses a bridge by the track to the airport and there was water in the 'ditch' which this bridge crossed, which had a few waders and Moorhens each time we crossed it.
There was definitely potential here - again, April might be better, especially if there was water in the salt pans.
There are birds in a number of places around the island - seldom in large numbers but enough to suggest that a concentrated effort might find one or two good species. Milos was the only island where we saw shrikes (although a probable Red-Backed was at Akrotiri in Santorini in '99 and a probable Woodchat near Karavostasis, Folegandros in the same year - both birds glimpsed only fleetingly). A Golden Oriole was a definite bonus and the only Cycladic Red-rumped Swallows were on Milos as well.
Delphi -Arachova - this complex area deserves a few days attention. More species should be possible with car hire. Delphi itself is probably the most enticing and inspiring classical site that I have visited (and I have seen few). Set at over 3000' above sea level, on a terrace overlooking an ocean of olive groves, with cliffs looming above and a view across the Pelopponese in the distance, the ruins themselves are worth a few hours of any birders time. The village of Arachova, although pretty enough, didn't seem to have much to offer (Lesser Grey Shrike was unexpected) but it gives access to the heights of Mount Parnassos, via the excellent road to the Parnassos Ski Centre. This looks worth a day on its own. The road is about 17 miles from Arachova to the Ski Centre. We travelled by taxi and so were unable to stop in the pleasant alpine "village" (mostly ski chalets) on the way, or in the extensive pine woods, which was a pity. There were several shrikes on the wires in the village, some of which may have been Lesser Greys. The shrikes and Pallid Swifts in Arachova require some effort. There is a steep flight of about 260 steps leading to the main church. The shrikes were a short distance behind the church, following the obvious road up as far as it goes. The swifts were around the church, easily picked out in good light.
The ski centre is at about 2000m above sea level and on our morning it was cold. Very cold. There was still a little snow around. We didn't actually see many birds up here. It was definitely not raptor weather, although it was not difficult to imagine large birds of prey in this setting. There are supposed to be Alpine Accentors, Shore Larks etc. in the area but it was too chilly to get very enthusiastic about finding them. Choose a warm day and take three layers of clothing.
There didn't seem to be much worthwhile habitat around the coastal village of Itea, about 15 minutes downhill from Delphi by taxi, but a hire car would give access to a wider area - there's bound to be a small marsh or river mouth within reach - it's just a question of finding it.
1. Levant Shearwater Puffinus yelkouan Seen from most ferries. 30+ between Folegandros and Kimolos.
2. Cory's Shearwater Calonectris diomedea As above, but more numerous.
3. Shag Phalacrocorax aristotelis Common around Kimolos
4. Mallard Anas platyrhyncus Pair, Chivadolimni, Milos
5. Honey Buzzard Pernis apivorus One near Klima, Milos, mobbed by Kestrel sp. and crow
6. Griffon Vulture Gyps fulvus Superb views of about 8 birds, Mt. Zas, Naxos.
7. Black Vulture Aegypius monachus Single, Delphi, above gully near the Tholos.
8. European Sparrowhawk Accipter nisus One, Delphi
9. Levant Sparrowhawk Accipter brevipes A pair passed briefly near the theatre in the Acropolis, Athens, much to the annoyance of the local Lesser Kestrels
10. Long-legged Buzzard Buteo rufinus Not uncommon in the Cyclades, except Santorini.
11. Golden Eagle Aquila chrysaetos Single bird at Delphi
12. Bonelli's Eagle Hieraaetus fasciatus Folegandros, as mentioned above.
13. Kestrel Falco tinnunculus Only one, Chivadolimni, Milos.
14. Lesser Kestrel Falco naumanni Quite common. Good views around the Acropolis, Athens.
15. Peregrine Falco peregrinus One Delphi
16. Eleonora's Falcon Falco eleonorae Much the commonest raptor on Naxos, Folegandros and Milos. Hundreds seen in total.
17. Lanner Falco biarmicus A bird seen briefly near Ambeli beach, Folegandros was probably this species.
18. Rock Partridge Alectoris graeca Close up views near Hora, Folegandros. Probably more than one family on scree below Anenomilos Apartments.
19. Common Pheasant Phasianus colchichus A male near the Panagia, Hora, Folegandros must have been deliberately introduced for 'sport'.
20. Moorhen Gallinula chloropus A few on the pool near Milos airport.
21. Little Ringed Plover Charadrius dubius As above, and at Agia Anna, Naxos.
22. Little Stint Calidris minuta As above.
23. Dunlin Calidris alpina One or more, Naxos reservoir.
24. Ruff Philomachus pugnax Two non-breeding plumage birds, Milos airport pool
25. Wood Sandpiper Tringa glareola Several, as above.
26. Audouin's Gull Larus audouinii Single bird, Chivadolimni, Milos.
27. Yellow-legged Gull Larus cachinnans Common
28. Rock Dove Columbia livia Near Ambeli, Folegandros.
29. Collared Dove Streptopelia decaocto Common on mainland
30. Scops Owl Otus scops At least 4 near the junction of the two main roads, Chalkio, Naxos. One heard from Plaka, Athens, below the Acropolis.
31. Little Owl Athene noctua Very common on Folegandros. Seen elsewhere.
32. Common Swift Apus apus Fairly common but not everywhere.
33. Pallid Swift Apus pallidus Seen around the church, Arachova.
34. Alpine Swift Apus melba Oia, Santorini.
35. Hoopoe Upupa epops One, Delphi, calling frequently
36. Crested Lark Galerida cristata Common in suitable habitat, even on Santorini.
37. Wood Lark Lullula arborea Several, Delphi.
38. Swallow Hirundo rustica Common
39. Red-rumped Swallow Hirundo daurica One, Naxos, near the 'Wind Park', several near Tholos, Delphi.
40. House Martin Delichon urbica Common but not on Folegandros.
41. Yellow Wagtail Motacilla flava feldegg Only one seen, Folegandros - presumed to be a late migrant.
42. White Wagtail Motacilla a. alba A few on west coast of Naxos.
43. Nightingale Luscinia megarhyncos Delphi only.
44. Black redstart Phoenicurus ochruros Parnassos Ski Centre.
45. Stonechat Saxicola torquata Mt. Zas, Naxos
46. Wheatear sp. ???? An unusual bird - possibly O.o libanotica or Pied (O. pleschanka) near Mt. Zas summit.
47. Black-eared Wheatear Oenanthe hispanica Quite common in hilly areas.
48. Northern Wheatear Oenanthe oenanthe Fairly common on Folegandros.
49. Blue Rock Thrush Monticola solitarius Fairly widespread in small numbers.
50. Blackbird Turdus merula Arachova and Athens only.
51. Cetti`s Warbler Cettia cetti Naxos south of Chora, and Livadia bus station.
52. Olivaceous Warbler Hippolais pallida Fairly common except Santorini.
53. Subalpine Warbler Sylvia cantillans A pair in first bush on left after the cave, Mt. Zas, Naxos
54. Icterine Warbler Hippolais icterina One, near Hora, Folegandros.
55. Spotted Flycatcher Muscicapa striata Common on Folegandros, wherever there are trees.
56. Sombre Tit Parus lugubris Delphi - just below zebra crossing near site entrance.
57. Blue Tit Parus caeruleus Arachova and Athens only.
58. Great Tit Parus major Naxos and Delphi.
59. Western Rock Nuthatch Sitta neumeyer Delphi is covered in them! Just sit on a a stone and wait.
60. Golden oriole Oriolus oriolus A pair near the pharmacy, Plaka, Milos.
61. Red-backed Shrike Lanius collurio Arachova, near church and Mt. Parnassos.
62. Lesser Grey Shrike Lanius minor Pair near church, Arachova.
63. Woodchat Shrike Lanius senator South coast of Milos, and as per Golden Oriole.
64. Magpie Pica pica Occasional - not on the islands
65. Hooded Crow Corvus c. cornix Quite widespread. Not as common as in UK.
66. Raven Corvus corax Lots, Mt. Zas, Naxos. singles elsewhere.
67. House Sparrow Passer d. domesticus Very common
68. Serin Serinus serinus A few, Delphi and Parnassos Ski Centre.
69. Goldfinch Carduelis carduelis Not very common and not everywhere.
70. Greenfinch Carduelis chloris As above
71. Linnet Acanthis cannabina Quite common in hilly areas
72. Chaffinch Fringilla coelebs Only seen on Naxos and mainland.
73. Cirl Bunting Emberiza cirlus Seen around Filoti and Mt. Zas, Naxos in 1999.
74. Rock Bunting Emberiza cia Naxos in several places, and Delphi.
75. Corn Bunting Miliaria calandra Only on Naxos. Not common
76. Black-headed Bunting Emberiza melanocephala Inland, Naxos
77. Cretzschmar`s Bunting Emberiza caesia Mt. Zas, Naxos
Appendix 1 - other wildlife
No mammals were seen at all (in 1999 we saw a Beech Marten crossing a road at night inland on Naxos). Lizards were widespread and common. There were a few snakes on Naxos and around Delphi. Terrapins and frogs could be seen around Kinidaros, Naxos. Butterflies were generally disappointing, with Swallowtails, Scare Swallowtails, Cleopatras and White Admirals being the most noticeable. Insects were quite good fun, with Praying Mantises, locusts, crickets, Ant Lions etc. in many areas.
As a final bonus, after the long night-time drive home from Luton, we saw an adult badger crossing the road just near the A5 on the outskirts of Shrewsbury.
Appendix 2 - conclusion
As I had visited the Cyclades three times before, I was pleased with my three new species on Folegandros (Bonelli's Eagle, Rock Partridge and Icterine Warbler). It wouldn't be my choice for a birdwatching only holiday, but the islands are beautiful and there is plenty to do to interest most people. Delphi deserves more attention than I could give it, but I will be going back one day.
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