Lake Kerkini and North Macedonia - Balkan birds and spring wildlife
Breeding birds, butterflies, wild flowers and abundant wildlife in this little-known and unspoiled corner of the Balkans.
North Macedonia is a small country, the same size as Belgium, in the heart of the Balkans. Its varied landscapes and position at the crossroads of the Balkans combine with traditional rural life to create the right ingredients for abundant and diverse wildlife. Almost one third of the country is still covered with traditionally sheep grazed steppe. The landscapes themselves are reason enough to visit, but we will also enjoy any and everything that moves or blooms! The country boasts over 200 species of butterflies, a staggering diversity for a country of this size. A great range of birds are another obvious focus, with a particularly wide range of raptors as well as many south-eastern specialities while wild flowers and reptiles abound and promise plenty of Balkan endemics.
Nearby Lake Kerkini, in Northern Greece ranks among one of the finest wetlands in the Balkans. Although an artificial reservoir there are shallow waters in the north where a large temporarily flooded riverine forest attracts many herons, egrets, spoonbills and cormorants. Both European species of pelican occur in good numbers in spring. Dalmatians breed and White just stay using this fish-rich habitat. Impressive mountains rise to the north of the lake and their foots are covered by fantastic habitats good for passerines like shrikes, buntings, warblers and tits. Raptors breed all around Kerkini with best numbers in the Kroutsia Mountains to the west of the lake.
The fine mixture of habitats ensures that you will have a rewarding and easy going holiday: whichever direction we go there should be a new species for us to see.
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Please note that holidays change, although sometimes only slightly, from year to year and previous trip reports may not reflect the planned itinerary, or other holiday details, for the current trip. Please ask us if you would like to know of any significant differences.
Day 1 Our flights take us to Thessaloniki, from where we will head towards the coast. Amongst the lagoons of the Axios River delta, we look for Slender billed and Mediterranean Gulls, Gull-billed Tern, Avocet and Black-winged Stilt. From here we head across the border into North Macedonia to the small town of Demir Kapija.
Day 2 We start today walking along the nearby Babuna river, where Roller and Golden Oriole breed in poplars fringing the river shores, Rock Partridge is sometimes flushed from the ground and Eastern Imperial Eagles hold territory nearby. On the east bank of the Vardar River we will find an area of low hills, intersected with flat stream valleys. This is the driest area of Macedonia and has a real Mediterranean character. The butterfly season should be well advanced here, with Cardinal, Little Tiger Blue and Southern White Admiral all likely. Pyramidal Orchid and various flaxes will be amongst the flowers. The strange giant ground cricket Bradyporus dasypus may be found blundering about the bushes, and Nose-horned Viper and Eastern Green Lizard may be among the reptiles enjoying the warmth.
Day 3 An early start sees us heading to a plateau where we will visit a viewpoint overlooking a ‘vulture restaurant’ run by the NGO Aquila Conservation. The vultures of the Balkans are in serious decline: our visit will contribute much needed funds to the protection of the region’s vultures. Early summer is especially good for butterfly specialities such as Russian Heath, Turquoise Blue, Freyer’s Fritillary and Camberwell Beauty, which we will look for at Raec river. On our way back to our hotel, we will stop in a village to observe a colony of Lesser Kestrels, said to be one of the last large colonies in the Balkans. Calling Scops Owls should provide the soundtrack to dinner at a local restaurant, a nice finale to the day!
Day 4 A walk in the Demir Kapija gorge should reveal plenty of interesting butterflies, including Great Banded Grayling, Ilex Hairstreak and Balkan Marbled White. Amongst the scattered scrub we look for Olive-tree Warbler and Masked Shrike, two Balkan specialities that make their home in these sunny hillsides. Heading east, we make a brief stop at Dojran Lake, a large shallow wetland shared between Macedonia and Greece. Little Bittern can sometimes be seen flying from one patch of reeds to another, Pygmy Cormorants are usually present in good numbers and interesting dragonflies could include Black Pennant and Bladetail. After crossing the border back into Greece, we will transfer to the village of Akritochori, which gives us a great position to explore the lake surroundings and the nearby mountain ranges.
Days 5-7 Renowned as one of the finest wetland sites in Europe, Lake Kerkini attracts thousands of water birds throughout the year. Spring sees this place probably in its best as all the breeding migrants are back and we can explore not only the lake itself but also the diverse habitats found in its proximity. One morning we have an early start to take a boat trip along the northern shore. The boat will go past the river delta edge, an area teeming with thousands of birds. Amongst the many Common and Whiskered Terns we will look out for Black and White-winged Terns. The pier at Mandraki is an excellent place for close-up views of Squacco Heron and Pygmy Cormorant, alongside two species of terrapin, while we will listen out for the song of Great Reed Warblers, Golden Orioles and Penduline Tits. We will explore the warm hillsides in search of wildflowers, including Eastern Lizard Orchid Himantoglossum caprinum and the Dragon Lily Dracunculus vulgaris, while Nettle-tree Butterflies sometimes number in their thousands. To the west of the lake, the Kroutsia Mountains hold exceptional numbers of breeding raptors: Lesser Spotted Eagle, Levant Sparrowhawk and Honey Buzzard will be amongst our targets, along with Black Stork.
Day 8 After one last morning walk in search of Syrian Woodpecker, Red-backed Shrike and Little Owl, we return to Thessaloniki for our flights home.
Please note that the itinerary may be changed to suit the weather or other practicalities at the discretion of the leaders.
We will be staying at two, good, local hotels, both with en-suite accommodation.
The holiday is full board, meals being a mixture of Balkan and International dishes, with an emphasis on local cuisine. Requests for special diets can be accommodated. Evening meals will be at the hotels. We will have picnic lunches on most days.
We will travel by small coach or minibus.
The group flights are with with Easyjet from London Gatwick to Thessaloniki.
North Macedonia is one hour and Greece two hours ahead of UK time.
If you hold a British passport, from 1 January 2021 you will be able to travel to countries in the Schengen area (including Greece) for up to 90 days in any 180-day period without a visa. North Macedonia is NOT in the EU or Schengen area. Visas are not required for holders of British Passports for travel up to three months. You must have at least six months left on your passport to travel to most countries in Europe.
At this time of year the weather is usually warm and sunny but not too hot. There may be some cooler weather and some rain.
On most days, we are out and about for much of the day, albeit walking a relatively slow pace. It is necessary to walk on rougher ground and up some slopes, although none of the walking is strenuous. The pace will generally be relaxed with time to enjoy the surroundings and take photos as well as watching the wildlife we find. Our visit to Kerkini includes a boat trip: you should be steady enough on your feet to get on and off the boat. There may be steps at our hotels, as well as up/down into the bus and boat.