It’s easy to get disheartened in this world we’ve made, where wild things are of so little importance to so many people, where they are shot for fun and their habitats are trashed in the name of ‘progress’. However, there are still places where people are working hard to preserve the wild things and their habitats. Lake Kerkini, in Northern Greece, is a case in point.
This place is simply a bird wonderland. Just an hour’s drive north of Thessaloniki, nothing can quite prepare you for sheer number of birds on and around the lake. It’s nearly 20 years since my first visit and each time is as magical as the first. And so it proved once again last week. I was there to discuss habitat improvement projects with the management staff on behalf of the conservation organisation, Birdwing (www.birdwing.eu) my wife and I run out here in Greece.
The lake, created by the damming of the Strimonas River in 1932, is used primarily as a reservoir for the irrigation of the fertile Serres plain to the south. Its depth changes by several metres during the course of the year as the winter rains are gradually fed out to the farmland below. The surface area increases from about 54 square kilometres in autumn to a brimming 72 square kilometres in June. This means that, for the visitor, the scene is always changing and, of course, the same is true for the birds.
As we walked towards the lake last week the air was full of the songs of nightingales, golden orioles, purring turtle doves, the harsh chatter of the great reed warbler, the mechanical olivaceous warbler, cuckoos and the explosive Cetti’s warbler. Bee-eaters were everywhere, burrowing furiously into the sandy embankments, arrowing into the air as we approached. All this is standard fare for Kerkini and is a banquet in itself, but the quality was turned up a notch by visitors from the east. On the Sunday of our visit there weren’t any, Monday saw a few but by Tuesday there were large flocks all around the lake. Rosy starlings were everywhere! It seemed that every mulberry tree was alive with their movement and chatter.
There is an area of trees to the north of the lake that, as the water level rises in spring, becomes a ‘drowned forest’ as it stands in over a metre of water. This provides a perfect nest site for thousands of water birds, including cormorants, herons and egrets.
A grey heron, wrestling with a very alive, very large snake, reluctantly took to the air as we reached the embankment. At this time of year, along the shore, there are lots of dead branches protruding from the water and almost every one had a heron of some sort on it, often a night heron or a gorgeous squacco.
In the wet meadows opposite, numerous little egrets, a single purple heron, a couple of great white egrets together with glossy ibises probed for food. There were spoonbills with their scything feeding action and several cattle egrets scampering between the plodding feet of the water buffaloes. A lone spur-winged plover waited hopefully for a partner.
Hundreds of great crested grebes were busy on family business, many with nests and some with their stripy young riding on their backs. In the distance black-necked grebes were busy arranging nests out of floating vegetation in amongst the whiskered terns. In the distance we could clearly see the three pelican platforms, each packed full of Dalmatian pelicans.
This bird, one of the largest in Europe, is globally endangered, with a world population estimated at fewer than 14 000. It has undergone massive global declines over the past couple of centuries, a result of wetland drainage, persecution and disturbance during the breeding season. Here at Kerkini, through conservation efforts, artificial nesting sites have allowed over 200 young to fledge this year alone.
Suddenly there was a movement of spawning fish in the shallows in front of us. Within seconds thousands of cormorants and pelicans were thrashing their way across the lake to join the feast. The lake surface was boiling with splashing, diving and gulping birds. Egrets gobbled up fish that had jumped out of the frying pan onto the shore. Within seconds there was quiet as the fish sank deeper. The birds sat, watchful, waiting, knowing that within minutes another shoal would be spotted and the thrashing, squawking and feasting would begin again.
A masked shrike leapt up from the track. A hoopoe flew over with its ‘butterfly’ flight. A lesser spotted eagle rose from a field of poppies. Penduline tits called their mournful ‘siuu’. A tortoise ambled past and a black kite scooped a fish from the lake surface.
Kerkini had once again worked its magic – on such a day it’s difficult to think of a better place to be.
If you’re interested in learning more about Kerkini and other wetlands of Greece, seeing more photos of the birds there and finding out ways you can help preserve and protect them, go to birdwing.eu