January isn’t a time for tourists and birders to visit the island. Many of the summer resorts, hotels, tavernas are shut up, their hard-working owners and staff on their winter breaks. It’s cold outside, and apart from snowball fights ‘if’ it snows, the local residents prefer to wrap up indoors.
But the island is alive with birds. With few resident birders on the island, it wasn’t really until the last year or so, when three island residents, Petros Tsakmakis, Pantelis Thomaidis and Dimitris Fotiou, took up wildlife photography and began to show us just how alive with birds the island is in winter. They joined the Lesvos Birders Facebook Group and started to post photos from around the island that had those of us non-residents wishing we were there. They have started to record in greater detail the regular winter visitors and have even unearthed some rare species, including a completely new record for Lesvos – Steppe Buzzard Buteo buteo vulpinus – which had long been thought to occur but never been proved until Petros Tsakmakis photographed several birds in the winter of 2012/13.
In temperate Europe our seasons deliver us an annual cycle that birds and other wildlife are permanently tied to. Given the number of birders present on the island in spring, and the lack of them for the other ten months of the year, locals in particular would be forgiven if they thought that spring was the time when all bird species were at their most numerous. But they’d be wrong.
In winter, the milder island climate of Lesvos is a refuge for birds to the north and east that seek a snow- and ice-free destination for their winter feeding. The numbers reaching the island vary greatly from winter to winter depending on how harsh the winter is in mainland northern Greece and Bulgaria to the north and in Turkey to the east.
The wetlands are the main focus for winter visitors. The saltpans at Kalloni and Polichnitos attract birds year-round, but the seasonal coastal wetlands, refilled by autumn and winter rains, and rivers that were dry during the summer months, are now magnets for winter birds.
The saltpans, particularly the expansive Kalloni pans, hold large numbers of the larger waterbirds. Grey Herons Σταχτοτσικνιάς Ardea cinerea are common, and each winter we get larger numbers of Great Egrets Αργυροτσικνιάς Ardea alba. These large white herons are unmistakable and stand upright throughout the pans like some winter decorations. The smaller Little Egret Λευκοτσικνιάς Egretta garzetta are present too, as are Greater Flamingos Φοινικόπτερο Phoenicopterus ruber, and, standing above them all, Black Storks Μαύρος Πελαργός Ciconia nigra. Black Storks are familiar breeding birds, but more and more are spending their winter on the island. Are they local breeders? Or are they from further north or east? Or are birds simply not flying further south to spend their winter – a telling sign of a changing climate? And pelicans are here too. Dalmatian Pelican Αργυροπελεκάνος Pelacanus crispus now appear to winter on the island each year. In northern Greece, this pelican can be found throughout the winter at Lake Kerkini, but small numbers now appear to be coming to Lesvos to spend the middle of the winter around the saltpans.
The adjacent Alykes wetlands are also full of birds. Ducks such as Mallard Πρασινοκέφαλη Πάπια Anas platyrhynchos, Wigeon Σφυριχτάρι Anas penelope, Shoveler Χουλιαρόπαπια Anas clyptea and Teal Κιρκίρι Anas crecca occur in small numbers and can easily be overlooked, as, even to the trained eyes, they do all look a little alike. Two more obvious species however do stand out. Both are social, occurring in loud groups. One, black and white with a bright red bill, is the Common Shelduck Βαρβάρα Tadorna tadorna and prefers the wetter areas, whilst the larger, sandy-coloured Ruddy Shelduck Καστανόπαπια Tadorna ferruginea, breeds on the island in small numbers, but in winter they form large flocks around coastal wetland and grassland areas.
We think one of the reasons the Kalloni saltpans and Alykes wetlands are attracting more species in winter is because of the reduced hunting in the area in recent years, protected under its Natura 2000 status. Hunting is not just about the shooting of birds. The hidden impact of hunting is the disturbance men, dogs and loud guns have on the surrounding countryside. For wetlands this is key. They concentrate birds in a small area and when disturbed these birds often have nowhere else to take refuge. So they are forced to stop feeding and expend vital energy to escape.
Lesvos is renowned as a beautiful island with excellent, easy to see wildlife. Protecting key wildlife areas on Lesvos is therefore vital for the island’s tourism. Many of the island’s protected areas are the places visited by birders in spring, and enjoyed throughout the main tourist season by other holiday-makers. This is one way Lesvos can stand out from other Mediterranean and Aegean holiday destinations where hunting is still widespread (and not always legal), sending the message to potential visitors that the islanders themselves care for and protect the natural environment of Lesvos.
If you would like to know more about the Lesvos’s birdlife see Lesvos Birds 2012 (http://lesvosbirding.com/bird-reports/) which includes details of all bird species ever recorded on Lesvos and their status on the island. If you would like to know about areas to look for birds on the island see my book, A Birdwatching Guide to Lesvos (http://lesvosbirding.com/guide-book/).