Wildlife and Nature of East Macedonia
Sarah Baxter discovers a patch of paradise – teeming with wildlife – in the far north-eastern corner of Greece that’s well off the beaten tourist track
Not many international visitors make it to the ancient lands of Macedonia and Thrace in the far north-eastern corner of Greece at the end of the Rhodope mountain chain and at the meeting of continents. But avian visitors? This place is heaving.
That’s what I learned as I peered through a spotting scope in the hilltop hide at Dadia-Lefkimi-Soufli Forest National Park. As I focused on the black kites baubling a leafless tree, and the black and griffon vultures hunched on the ridge below, local guide Chrysoula Bampaka told me why the park is such a hotspot for birds.
“It’s a crossroads for migrating species,” she explained. “There are good rock outcrops here, good trees and few people.” Indeed, the low, stream-tickled pastures and oak-and-pine-cloaked slopes of Dadia-Lefkimi-Soufli are one of the most important protected areas on the continent.
Some 36 of Europe’s 38 species of diurnal birds of prey can be seen here – from sparrowhawks and red-footed falcons to imperial and golden eagles – as well as black storks and a noisy twitterati of woodland birds.
At the other end of the hide, two rangers sat quietly, making their daily count: fifty so far, including an Egyptian vulture. Though that’s nothing. “It was 6 August 2010,” Chrysoula recalled with a delight and precision only possible from someone passionate about their job, “we had over 200 birds here at one time.”
That same level of abundance continued as I made my way out of the lush foothills and towards the starker, striking landscapes of the Evros Delta. Here, the Evros River – which forms the border between Turkey and Greece – meets the Aegean in a rich morass of lakes, lagoons, swamps, sand dunes and reedbeds. Drainage projects have threatened this unique habitat over the years but it was declared a Ramsar-protected wetland in 1974. With around 320 species recorded, the birdwatching is excellent.
“I come here every week – if I don’t I feel there’s something missing from my life.” Local photographer Nasos Nalbantis had joined me on a trip with Evros Delta Explorer and we were bouncing along a track through the marshes – trying not to run over tortoises – to reach the mooring of Captain Christos’s flat-bottomed boat. The blazing sun heat-hazed the maze of shallow pools and the swathes of olive-green and burgundy glassworts. Curlews, egrets and a glossy ibis waded in the water; a bee eater buzzed above.
“There’s a marsh harrier,” Nasos said, giving the bird barely a nod. “They’re like sparrows here.”
Once aboard the boat, we navigated the delta’s winding channels, passing innumerable herons and rickety fishing huts slumped amid the reeds, to reach the open water. There didn’t seem to be too much going on at first as Christos steered us further out: a few washed up trees were providing perches for pelicans, a lone fisherman was casting his net. Then we noticed a pale patch on the horizon begin to move: a flock of flamingoes, subtly striding towards shallower water, where they knew boats couldn’t follow. Well, most boats. With care and skill, Christos navigated us a little closer, closer, closer… and then up they went. One, ten, 50, the whole elegant squadron, rising together as if bound by invisible threads, giving us the perfect, slow-motion flyby so that, for a minute, the blue sky was shot through with a volley of pink arrows, the only sound the light beat of their wings.
I was to get more hands-on for my next watery foray. The Nestos River, a little west of Evros, also flows into the Aegean; its course is also a haven for wildlife, and its surroundings are also relatively little-visited.
“This is an unknown part of Greece,” Ilias Michailidis, founder of Riverland Adventure, told me as we readied for a day of exploring.
First, we hopped into kayaks to experience one of the Nestos’s most dramatic stretches, where the crystal-clear water meanders through a particularly tight, craggy defile in the Rhodope Mountains. Here, osprey and vultures soar overhead while tenacious Haberlea rhodopensis plants – survivors from the last Ice Age – cling to the limestone walls. Incredibly, a railway was hacked into the rock in the late 19th-century, which once carried the Orient Express this way; with the line currently defunct, the only way through the gorge now is to trek along the vertiginous pathway created by those dogged railway engineers – which is now a first-class hiking trail – or to do as I was and paddle through.
“There are many stories about gold being hidden here,” Ilias told me as we sculled across the cool shallows, gazing up at the looming cliffs, pocked with caves. “This is a place of legends, linked to Orpheus, where so many cultures have crossed over the centuries.”
It was peaceful today though, as we glided past sandy beaches and hunting herons, and diverted down a lush channel where seeds drifted like snow and dragonflies seemed to shimmer on every reed.
I didn’t really want to stop kayaking but Ilias had more to show me. We transferred to his jeep and hairpinned up the mountain road to look down on the meandering river we’d just paddled. We dropped deeper into the hinterland to search for wild horses in the valley’s abandoned villages. And we visited the Meligeysis farm in tiny Komnina, where Geysis Toulomidou introduced us to her hardworking bees and plied us with fresh-fried doughnuts drenched in her own honey.
But we finished back by the water, this time on Lake Vistonida. Vistonida, along with the Nestos Delta, sits within the National Park of East Macedonia & Thrace, another vital wetland where birds flourish. As the sky faded from brilliant-blue to soft periwinkle, we walked out to St Nicholas Monastery, which floats on two islets in the lake. At this sunset hour it was quiet, just a few cormorants drying their wings, a ginger-white cat lolling on the church steps and two dark-robed monks, one tending a vegetable patch, the other sitting on a bench, deep in thought.
It was just the sort of place for thinking – peaceful, calm, removed from the clamour of the world. Until another bunch of rowdy visitors turned up: I watched them arrive en masse, big, boisterous types, making a din. More avian tourists of course – this time pelicans – making sure that, in this region at least, us humans stay well out-numbered.
With thanks to Joysters for facilitating our visit in the summer of 2022.
Read more about what to do, where to stay and eat, in our Green Traveller's Guide to East Macedonia and Thrace