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Birdwatching in Lesvos

Lesvos has quite rightly established itself as one of the best birdwatching locations in Europe. Who better to tell you more about the birds of Lesvos that the man behind Lesvosbirding.com and the author of the forthcoming book A Birdwatching Guide to Lesvos – Steve Dudley.

Ballon's Crake, wildbirds, Lesvos, Greece
Ballon's Crake

Cinerous Bunting, birds, lesvos, greece
Cinereous Bunting

crested lark, birds, lesvos, greece
Crested Lark

Kruper's Nuthatch, Lesvos, Greece
Kruper's Nuthatch

LESVOS: EUROPE’S PREMIER BIRD MIGRATION ISLAND!

Since the early 1990s, Lesvos has quite rightly established itself as one of the premier birding destinations within the Mediterranean basin. It combines the excitement of migration with several key species which can be otherwise difficult to see elsewhere in Europe. It might not have the large numbers of raptors some other places enjoy, but even raptor passage can be exhilarating.

THE BIRDING YEAR

Spring, particularly May, remains the favoured time for birders to visit the island. Increasing numbers, however, do visit at other times, including autumn and others take family holidays during the summer months.

Glossy Ibis, birds of Lesvos
Glossy Ibis

sLittle Bittern, wildbirds, lesvos, greece
Little Bittern

Cretzschmars Bunting birds of Lesvos, Greece
Cretzschmars Bunting

Garganey, birds of lesvos greece
Garganey

Late Winter

January and February are coldest months but generally bright with regular rainfall. Occasional frosts. Temperatures begin to increase from mid-February.

With wetland areas holding water, wildfowl numbers are at their highest, but no species ever occurs in very large numbers. These sites also hold increased Coot and Water Rail. The two saltpan areas hold over-wintering Greater Flamingos, herons, egrets and waders. Kingfisher is widespread both at inland freshwater sites and around the coast. The shallow basin of the Gulf of Kalloni holds significant numbers of wintering wildfowl and seabirds including Great Crested and Black-necked Grebes, Black-throated Diver, Great Cormorant and Shag. White Wagtail and Water Pipits are also widespread with smaller numbers of Grey Wagtail. Lowland areas hold mixed flocks of seedeaters, mainly Corn Bunting, Skylark and commoner finches, but also Serin and Woodlark. Raptors include Marsh Harrier and Goshawk. Wintering warblers can be much in evidence with Blackcap, Chiffchaff and Cetti’s and Sardinian Warblers. The latter are much more widespread throughout lowland areas than at any other time of year. The island can hold large numbers of Blackbird and Song Thrush, and Robin and Black Redstart are widespread and numerous. Hawfinch, Siskin and Crossbill are all usually present, and can sometimes be found in large flocks in some winters. Numbers of many species vary from year to year depending on the severity of the winter, especially on the neighbouring Turkish mainland, where a hard winter can also lead to increased numbers of thrushes (including Fieldfare and Redwing), Lapwing and wildfowl (including geese).

Purple Heron, Lesvos, Greece
Purple Heron

Scops Owl, Lesvos greece
Scops Owl

Little Owl, Lesvos, Greece
Little Owl

Ruddy Shelduck, Lesvos, birds
Ruddy Shelduck

Spring

March and April are unpredictable months weather-wise. As days begin to brighten the temperatures also pick up but it can be showery and windy. By the end of April and into May, air temperature becomes noticeably warmer and rainfall becomes less likely. May daytime temperatures can be tempered by northerly winds making it feel decidedly cool on some days.

Migration is already underway in early March with early migrant species such as Chiffchaff, Garganey and Northern Wheatear in evidence. By mid-month, hirundines and swifts are moving through and by the end of the month the wetland areas in particular see an increase in both species and numbers – herons, egrets, storks, waders, raptors and the first crakes. The first Quail can be heard calling from lowland fields. Even highland areas will see increased activity as breeding birds begin setting up territories in earnest and the first Black-eared Wheatears arrive. Stone-curlews appear around the saltpans and river mouth areas, with some staying on to breed.

Early April sees another push of migrants. Raptors include Lesser Kestrel and Short-toed Eagle from the start, both increasing in numbers during the month. Red-rumped Swallows and Crag Martins arrive back around breeding sites and even larger numbers pass through.

Mid-month is the best time for Pallid Harrier and the passage and arrival of many species seems relentless; it is the period with both greatest variety of species and total number of birds. Cretzschmar’s Buntings are suddenly all over the mid-to-higher areas, Orphean and Rüppell’s Warblers are on territory, and ‘yellow’ wagtails begin to pass through in considerable numbers. Flycatchers also pass through in large numbers, including many Collared and the odd Semi-collared. Warblers include increasing numbers of Wood, Icterine and Eastern Bonelli’s (on passage as well as returning breeding birds), good numbers of Golden Oriole, Hoopoe, Common Redstart, Whinchat (often in hundreds), and small numbers of Roller.

Lucky birders will chance upon Ortolan Bunting or a singing Thrush Nightingale. You won’t fail to miss Great Reed Warblers around any of the scrub- or reed-lined rivers and wetlands. Raptors include good numbers of Marsh and Montagu’s Harriers, the last of the spring’s Hen Harriers, increasing numbers of Osprey, Hobby, Red-footed Falcon and Lesser Kestrel, and by the month’s end, Eleanora’s Falcon and Levant Sparrowhawk - the latter occasionally seen in small flocks, sometimes into double figures. Long-legged and Common Buzzards will be displaying over the open valleys, Goshawks are still much in evidence and the odd Black Kite and eagle species can be seen passing over to the north. In the west, Isabelline Wheatears are back on their breeding areas and offshore both Yelkouan (Mediterranean) and Scopoli’s (Cory’s) Shearwaters can be seen. Waders peak at wetland sites including the saltpan areas and wetter rivers and include good numbers of Wood, Common, Marsh and Curlew Sandpipers, Little and Temminck’s Stints, Greenshank, Spotted Redshank and the occasional goody such as Spur-winged Plover or a downright rarity such as a Caspian Plover. Rivers, especially river mouths, are the best place to look out for Citrine Wagtail, and the coastal areas are the places to look for Audouin’s Gull. Any wetland area can see passage flocks of Mediterranean Gulls, the odd Slender-billed Gull, Gull-billed Terns or Collared Pratincoles. The latter can often be seen in good numbers in fields around the Kalloni Saltpans. Mid-month usually sees the last of the lingering wintering species such as Great Crested and Black-necked Grebes, wildfowl and a decline in Greater Flamingo numbers.

Mid- to late April is probably the best time to catch up with two of the main target breeding species. Cinereous Buntings are now back on territory in the west of the island, with Ipsilou the best site to look for them but they can also be encountered in many western areas including the Meladia Valley between Sigri and Eressos and at Aghia Ioannis just west of Parakila. Look for males singing from prominent rocks or small trees. They can be incredibly difficult to see!

Krüpers Nuthatch is also very obvious. Most pairs excavate their nest holes around the middle of the month. Once the nests are complete the females will be sat on eggs and males then make only irregular nest visits and turn all too quiet. From the last week of the month the first broods will have hatched and both parents will be busy collecting food and regularly seen at the nest.

The back third of April sees the main arrival of Olivaceous Warbler, who soon set up territories along the river valleys and wetlands. Shrike numbers peak, with Woodchat, Red-backed, Lesser Grey and Masked Shrikes all in evidence, and occasionally all seen together around a single field! Hoopoes will also be much more evident and as the month progresses the wooded valleys will be filled with their far-carrying song and courting birds which often chase one another around suitable nesting areas. Check coastal areas for Red-throated Pipit and Short-toed Lark, while Barred and River Warblers, Wryneck, Red-breasted Flycatcher and other scarce passage passerines can pop up anywhere. The first flocks of Bee-eaters can be heard passing over, with some tempted down into the wooded valleys or fruit groves to feed.

As water levels begin to reduce at places such as Metochi Lake, searching for Little and Spotted Crakes is made a whole lot easier! Little Bitterns too are more obvious now and Purple Herons are moving through and will often roost in tall trees or long grass areas at wetland sites or along river valleys, and Night-herons are also best looked for at their day time roost sites, including the tamarisks around Metochi Lake. Both of these herons can occur in large flocks. These same areas often hold roosting hirundines, often in huge numbers. Common and Alpine Swifts pass over in much broader movements, but river valleys often funnel them northwards when clouds can appear overhead. During cooler, damper weather birds are driven down and will concentrate over water areas or along valley ridges to feed. The odd Pallid Swift might still be in amongst these flocks, but this species is best looked for earlier in the month.

White, and occasionally Dalmatian, Pelicans can also be encountered this month, with both species occasional occurring in small flocks with the odd singleton lingering for a few days.

By the end of the April Masked Shrikes will be nesting, Rock Nuthatches will be feeding young in their funnel-shaped mud nesting chambers and Common Nightingales sing from any damp scrubby areas, including the hotel grounds at Skala Kallonis. The first broods of Sombre Tits will be hatching and the parents much more obvious as nest visits increase. The first Black-headed Bunting, Olive-tree Warbler and Rufous Bush Robin all arrive in the last few days of the month, and breeding Bee-eaters can be seen excavating their nest holes in the low river banks.

Spring raptor migration occurs broadly across the island, but several ‘hot spots’ stand out. In the west, mixed falcon flocks can be found hunting over hillsides between Ipsilou and Sigri. Ipsilou mount itself is excellent for many species, and watching from the top can often give views down on to birds moving along the valleys either side. In the centre of the island, the route north following almost exactly the road north to Petra is excellent. The Raptor Watchpoint just north of Kalloni at the ‘band stand’ (see site section) is excellent. Just to the east, Napi Valley is also excellent with several good viewpoints along its length. The north coast track between Efthalou and Skala Sikaminias provides several areas to view birds leaving to the north, and the main road inland of here running between Molivos and Mandamados (running below Mount Lepetimnos) offers vantage points looking south and north. In the south of the island, the Almiropotomas valley between Vatera and Aghias Fokas can also be very good. The headland of Aghias Fokas is a natural arrival point for birds coming across the sea to the south (on a clear day the Turkish mainland and Chios can be seen to the south of here), and the valley to the north provides a natural corridor for migrants to follow northwards towards Polchnitos and over the Gulf of Kalloni (and then either north along the Napi Valley or the Kalloni-Petra route). The sheer size of Mount Olympus cannot be ignored as such a prominent area will attract migrating birds, particularly larger birds such as raptors, storks and pelicans in need of updrafts and thermals to lift them high over the island. Few birders however spend much time down this southern end of the island, and virtually no one visits the far south-eastern peninsula and the Haramida Marsh area where Sardinian Warbler is present throughout the year.

With migration still in full swing, and temperatures now decidedly on the warm side, the first week of May sees more birders on Lesvos than any other week.

Early May sees an increased chance of semi-rarities such as Thrush Nightingale or even a White-throated Robin. The latter, although still a vagrant, amazingly has a tentative hold as a breeding species with the odd pair popping up every few years, but rarely in the same location.

Marsh terns are much in evidence with good numbers of White-winged Black and Whiskered Terns gracing the saltpan areas, the wetter rivers and any remaining flooded fields (e.g. near the Kalloni saltworks entrance). These same wetland sites continue to attract waders including the occasional Great Snipe.

Red-footed Falcons peak in early May, but like most species, numbers are heavily dictated by the weather. Search through any flocks of falcons for Eleanora’s, and make sure to check all small raptors for Levant Sparrowhawk. Honey-buzzard too should be much more evident.

Rufous Bush Robins arrive with a vengeance during the first week of the May and territorial males are easy to pick out as they sing their thrush-like tune from a prominent bush-top. A territory can comprise a ridiculously small area of only a small group of bushes, and despite the limited cover, birds can go missing for long periods when disturbed.

As water levels recede in the heat, look for small pockets of water containing large numbers of tadpoles. Any such pools near cover will attract herons and egrets, including Little Bittern and Night-heron. Muddy margins along rivers and wetland areas are still good for secretive crakes and early May offers the best chance to find a Baillon’s.

By mid-month some of the breeding birds are easier to see. Krüpers Nuthatch young will be fledging and small family parties should be looked for in the usual woodland areas. Middle Spotted Woodpeckers are remarkably common and will be feeding young in the nest throughout the month. During nestling-feeding the parents are much more obvious and noisier than earlier in the season and nest holes are often easy to stake out from a respectable distance.

From mid-month numbers of many species begin to reduce leaving one of the spring spectacles to take over – the passage of Rose-coloured Starling. Large flocks occur across the island, but particularly around water areas where they come down to drink in noisy groups before hiding in nearby trees. They have a distinct preference for Mulberry trees which concentrates the flocks to regular sites. This passage usually continues into June.

Other breeding birds to look for at the month’s end include Common Nightjar which occurs across the island in open scrubby areas including Potamia Valley, Mesa area and throughout the west. Listen for their remarkable ‘churring’ song at dusk and watch for their delightful display flights, including ‘wing-clapping’ against the dusk sky.

As summer takes hold the island becomes home for many fascinating insects including the spectacular Threadwing Lacewing and numerous butterflies including Swallowtail.

Short-toed Eagle, Lesvos, Greece
Short-toed Eagle

Spanish Sparrow, Lesvos, Greece
Spanish Sparrow

Spur-winged Plover, birds of Lesvos
Spur-winged Plover

Squacco Heron, Lesvos, Greece
Squacco Heron

Summer

June to August is hot and dry. With virtually no rainfall most areas turn decidedly brown with green areas restricted to a few spots where natural underground water courses flow close to the surface and irrigated farmland. Unless its been a very wet spring, all the rivers will now be dry and standing water restricted to the irrigation reservoirs, such as at Petra Potamia, and the reservoir at Pithariou (near Eressos).

Migration tails off with the sudden surge in temperature. Their remains a chance of lingering migrants during early June, but this hot summer period is largely left to breeding species. June can be a good month to see family parties of many species including Sombre Tit, Rock Nuthatch, shrikes, buntings and larks. Graniverous species begin to flock and finches, buntings and larks are soon flying around together in search of seedy areas. In upland areas wheatears are also easier to see now the young have fledged.

The late arriving Eleanora’s Falcon are breeding by the end of June and small feeding parties can be seen hawking insects over hillsides and ridges, and chasing hirundines up and down the valleys. The west is by far the best area to look out for these magnificent falcons. They breed on the offshore islands around Lesvos and can be seen scything through flocks of Alpine Swifts. These large swifts are present throughout the summer. Some may be breeding on offshore islands or around the larger mountains, but most are probably feeding parties from the Turkish mainland. Swifts are well-known for their long-range foraging flights which can take them over 100km from their breeding sites.

Into July and the first returning waders begin to appear. Non-breeding birds are often the first to appear (some having never gone much further than Lesvos), and by the end of the month, the first young birds will be moving through. With standing water pretty scarce concentrate your efforts on the saltpan areas, with the Skala Polihnitou saltpans now coming in to their own. The Pithariou Reservoir is also worth covering as it holds water throughout the summer.

From mid-July and throughout August the breeding summer migrants begin to leave the island, many of them forming small flocks before departure. Black-headed, Cretzschmar’s and Cinereous Buntings can form large flocks and are particularly obvious, along with large flocks of Corn Buntings.

As August progresses, raptors become more evident. Honey-buzzards and Goshawk begin to move southwards, and both species can be seen in good numbers from the middle of the month. Egrets, herons and storks are also on the move south, and the saltpan areas are a magnet for any wetland species.

During July and August birding is best confined to the cooler early morning and late evening when passerines are much more evident and raptors are often on the look out for the weak or unwary. Small birds will often be attracted to the smallest of water areas, including dripping or leaking irrigation pipes in the olive groves and arable fields.

The summer is the best time to see many of the amazing lizard species on the island. Many buildings host the diminutive Turkish Ghecko, whilst Wall Lizard occurs in most gardens and woodland areas and the stunning and large Balkan Green Lizard occurs across the island and is unmistable.

Subalp Warbler, birdwatching in Lesvos
Subalp Warbler

Swallowtail Butterfly, lesvos, greece
Swallowtail Butterfly

Thread Lacewing, lesvos
Thread Lacewing

Tree Frog, Lesvos, Greece
Tree Frog

Autumn

September sees only a marginal drop in temperature but northerly winds can still make it feel cool. October remains moderately warm, cooling towards the months end with the chance of some rain. Standing water remains at a premium throughout.

September is an increasingly popular month for the visiting birder and offers great, relaxed warm weather birding. Raptors and storks are much in evidence. Goshawk and Honey-buzzard numbers peak and double figure day counts can be expected, and the chance of picking up species such as Golden, Bonelli’s and Booted Eagles are greatly increased. Some of the best raptor watching can be either along the north coast (e.g. Molivos castle or near Sikaminia) with birds coming across the sea from Turkey, or in the south of the island (Polichnitos/Vatera area) as birds depart southwards.

White Pelicans begin to pass through and large flocks have been recorded. Birds arriving at the island late in the day might even roost on one of the saltpan areas or offshore in one of the shallow bays, moving on mid-morning the following day when the air temperature is warm enough to provide the thermals needed to help them on their southward journey.

The two saltpan areas and Pithariou Reservoir should be visited regularly. Not only do these areas attract and hold the wetland birds, but also the surrounding areas are the best areas to look for migrant passerines which are similarly drawn in to these three major wetland sites.

Don’t be afraid to wander though. Even the more barren west and the pine forests appear devoid of birds at first look, but good searching will provide rewards. The forest areas in particular, offering shade from the hot sun, hold shrikes, wheatears and warblers throughout the month.

Hirundines are on the move throughout, as are Bee-eaters, many of which go straight over head, but others are attracted in to woodland glades and sheltered valleys late in the day where they roost overnight. Common species such as Whinchat, Turtle Dove, Willow Warbler and Spotted Flycatcher pass through in large numbers and Kingfishers arrive at wetland sites and around the shallower coastal areas. The wetland areas and dry river valleys are often the best places to search. Even though dry, the river valleys are lined with trees and scrub which provide shelter and feeding sites along their length and a linear route for birds to follow southwards across the island. Rarer autumn passerines can be found including Collared Flycatcher, Eastern Bonelli’s Warbler and real rarities such as Bluethroat.

Into October and winter visitors begin to arrive with increasing numbers of Chiffchaff, Song Thrush, White Wagtail and other passerines. The wetland areas hold increasing numbers of Greater Flamingo, egrets, herons, waders and wildfowl whilst Great Crested and Black-necked Grebe numbers build up offshore.

Wall Lizard
Wall Lizard

White Stork, Lesvos, Greece
White Stork

White Storks, Lesvos
White Storks

goat
Can-headed Goat

Early Winter

Come November and lower temperatures bring increased rainfall (especially from mid-November) and the rivers begin flowing again, Metochi Lake and Pithriou Reservoir fill up and the irrigation reservoirs begin to fill. December sees a further temperature drop and even a chance of snow.

Pygmy Cormorant is one of the more unusual winter visitors with odd birds seen around coastal areas. Numbers of Great Cormorant increase too. Red-breasted Merganser join increasing numbers of wintering wildfowl, including scarcer species such as Pochard. Marsh and Hen Harriers hunt the open areas, particular around the coast. Numbers of Black Redstart, Blackbird and Song Thrush continue to increase, and will increase further if mainland Turkey sees a cold snap.

Steve Dudley
www.lesvosbirding.com

Adapted from Steve’s book A Birdwatching Guide to Lesvos

Birdwatching Guide to LesvosNow available!

A Birdwatching Guide to Lesvos is a completely new site guide to the Aegean island of Lesvos.

Lesvos offers some of the best birding in the Mediterranean basin. For four weeks each spring birders from across Europe converge on this outpost of Europe which lies just 5 miles off Turkey and Asia Minor. The birds are a blend of Mediterranean breeding species, migrants moving through to breed in eastern Europe and Asia Minor species such as Krüper’s Nuthatch (and probably the easiest place to see this species in the Western Palearctic).

The guide has been written by Steve Dudley, one of the island's most experienced bird and wildlife guides who has probably taken more groups around, and spent more time on the island than any other bird guide. Steve is also the man behind LESVOSBIRDING.COM - the only dedicated birding website to the island - which continues to provide visiting birders with up to date information including 'what's been seen today' daily summaries during the main spring birding weeks. Steve is also a founding member of the Lesvos Bird Records Committee. For more information see http://athene-birdinglesvos.blogspot.com/2009/07/its-here.html

You can buy A Birdwatching Guide to Lesvos by Steve Dudley as well as Birding in Lesvos by Richard Brooks and other books about Lesvos by using the Amazon.com search box on the left.


If you are in Athens be sure to visit the New Zoolgical Park . It has the 3rd largest collection of birds in the world. It is close to the airport so if you have a layover think about making the trip there rather than hanging out in the terminal. (especially if you are traveling with your children) See www.athensguide.com/zoo

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