Macedonia is quite unknown but no less fascinating than the other Balkan countries. The country seems to be ready to invite visitors although still offering traditionally managed landscape full of birds. It’s history dates back to the Macedonian dynasty and Illyrian towns. Sometimes called the “Pearl of the Balkans”, Macedonia has breathtaking landscapes with vast areas grazed by sheep flocks and countryside full of scenic mountains. Birds are plentiful and not too shy. We will be focused on raptors and passerines that include Levant Sparrowhawk, Long-legged Buzzard, Eastern Imperial Eagle and Lanner, Masked Shrike, Wallcreeper, Orphean Warbler and both Rock Thrushes. To make up for the lack of water habitats in Macedonia we will stay at Prespa lake – on it’s Greek side which offers better options for accommodation and also better access to birds. White and Dalmatian Pelicans will be the highlighted species there. We will be accompanied by two local guides who have specialized knowledge of where raptors breed.
Macedonia is quite unknown but no less fascinating than the other Balkan countries.
The country seems to be ready to invite visitors although still offering traditionally managed landscape full of birds. It’s history dates back to the Macedonian dynasty and Illyrian towns. Sometimes called the “Pearl of the Balkans”, Macedonia has breathtaking landscapes with vast areas grazed by sheep flocks and countryside full of scenic mountains. Birds are plentiful and not too shy. We will be focused on raptors and passerines that include Levant Sparrowhawk, Long-legged Buzzard, Eastern Imperial Eagle and Lanner, Masked Shrike, Wallcreeper, Orphean Warbler and both Rock Thrushes. To make up for the lack of water habitats in Macedonia we will stay at Prespa lake – on it’s Greek side which offers better options for accommodation and also better access to birds. White and Dalmatian Pelicans will be the highlighted species there. We will be accompanied by two local guides who have specialized knowledge of where raptors breed.
Macedonia | Greece
8 days | 2 hotels
dates: 06 – 13 May 2017
ground cost: £890/€1160 | single room: £100/€130
guide: Danka Uzunova
airport: Skopje, Macedonia or Thessaloniki, Greece
group size: 4 – 16
3% of the tour cost goes to vulture conservation
Itinerary in brief
D3 Vardar valley
D4 Taor gorge
D5 Mariovo area
D6 Transfer to Prespa, Pelagonia plain
D7 Prespa lake
D8 Thessaloniki departure
Dalmatian and White Pelican
Pygmy Cormorant, Glossy Ibis and Squacco Heron
Griffon and Egyptian Vulture
Booted and Imperial Eagle
Lanner and Lesser Kestrel
Alpine and Pallid Swift
Roller and Bee-eater
Lesser Grey and Masked Shrike
Sardinian, Orphean and Olive-tree Warbler
possibly Rosy Starling
Rufous-tailed and Blue Rock Thrush
7 species of bunting
Day 1 Arrival
We fly from UK to Thessaloniki, Greece and transfer to Kavadarci, the centre of
a best known wine area in central Macedonia. Depending on the traffic we should drive appr. 3-4 hours. Should we have any time before dinner wecan stop at Demir Kapia gorge to look for a Wallcreeper. - Overnight Kavadarci
Day 2 Vitachevo
We will have to make an early start to arrive to vulture conservation area in time. Morning gathering of raptors and sunshine in our back mean this is the best time of the day to observe up to a dozen of Griffon Vultures and a few Egyptian Vultures. Feeding place also attracts other raptors and we will especially hope to see Lesser Spotted Eagle. A Wolf comes sometimes to grab a piece for its cubs.
We will look out for raptors all day as we will travel along the Tikvesh lake, passing by a few villages before we get to Bosavica gorge. Golden Eagle and Short-toed Eagle, Long Legged Buzzard and Levant Sparrowhawk are all breeding in the area. We should spot a dozen of Woodchat Shrikes, a few Hoopoes, buntings, warblers and if lucky also a Wallcreeper.
Our hotel is found at the outskirts of a small town and we can take a brief walk before breakfast every day. Birds likely to be seen are Hobby, Corn Bunting, Golden Oriole, Syrian Woodpecker or Red-backed Shrike and Cirl Bunting in Town park. - Overnight Kavadarci
Day 3 Vardar river valley
In the morning, we will drive towards Vardar river and hope to observe an Eastern Imperial Eagle at eye level on an electricity pylon where it breeds. Peregrine Falcons also sometimes nest nearby.
At the same place, the Calandra Larks sing in flight. Top of a small hill is also a fabulous vantage point providing circular views. Here you will see an archetype of European farmland with dozens of vineyards, solitary trees, and many small grasslands scattered amidst the fields of various size. Wider environs are a good place to watch Bee-eater, Lesser Grey Shrike, Short-toed and Crested Lark, Roller and Lanner Falcon regularly breeds a few miles from there.
Later we move on to the driest area of Macedonia with annual precipitation of less than 250mm. The terrains are flat hills dissected by broad valleys created by temporary water courses that are already dried by this time of the year but still inhabited by Little Ringed Plovers.
Sparse bushy vegetation hosts plenty interesting passerines. Woodchat Shrike, Olivaceous and Orphean Warbler, Spanish Sparrow, Whinchat, Black-headed Bunting or Black-eared Wheatear are the most interesting ones. Sardinian and Olive-tree Warbler occur in low numbers and occasionally a flock of Rosy Starlings turns up.
Many species of interesting insects can be seen here including number of Mediterranean butterflies like Little Tiger Blue or Delattin´s Grayling.
In late afternoon, we visit a village with large Lesser Kestrel colony that amounts to 120 to 150 pairs. - Overnight Kavadarci
Day 4 Tikvesh lake
The Tikvesh Lake is an artificial lake stretching over 28 km long and surrounded by mountains. It was created on river Crna (Black river). The lake valley is very picturesque with steep limestone slopes, number of caves and tranquil bays. We’ll cruise the lake on a flat boat ideal for birdwatching. Birdlife used to be busy here and we will watch it both from the deck and also stop at a 13th century orthodox monastery where we will have a longer break.
There is a Griffon Vulture colony on a cliff that has increased in numbers recently. We may also spot nests of Long-legged Buzzard, Short-toed or Golden Eagle. Black Stork often soar over high over the valley while lower levels are reserved for Alpine Swifts and Red-rumped Swallows that will be busy to feed their young. The slopes can hide Cirl and Rock Bunting, Rock Partridge or a Subalpine Warbler.
We can also try to locate a perched Eagle Owl at one of its favourite outposts. - Overnight Kavadarci
Day 5 Prilep area
We leave Kavadarci after breakfast and take a 2-hour drive to the Mariovo area which is inhabited by large and easily accessible Griffon Vulture colony. Our main goal will be areas close to the road where we will spend rest of the day.
Volcanic rocks are interspersed there with limestone and together with scattered fields, old orchards and winding rivers provide a fascinating habitat to many interesting birds. Rock Trushes and Black-eared Wheatears are common. Besides vultures, Golden Eagle and Peregrine there are Booted Eagles, Rock Partridges, shrikes, Bee-eaters, Woodlark, Ortolan and Rock Bunting, Sombre Tit and possibly Rock Sparrow in the area that we will explore.
This is just another great place where to watch butterflies. About 50 species should be present on a sunny May day including rather localized Eastern Greenish and Gruner´s Orange Tip or Krueper´s White.
Typical and still inhabited old Macedonian village is found where the road ends. There we turn back and drive to Prilep. - Overnight Prilep
Day 6 Pelagonia plain
We drive across the border to Greece. We will pass Bitola town with nice medieval center that dates back to the times of Ottoman rule over the Balkans. Just outside Bitola there are ruins of much older settlement, Heraclea Lyncensis. It was founded by Philip II., father of Alexander The Great and was damaged by an earthquake in 6th century.
We will take a brief look and perhaps watch a wheatear or Blue Rock Thrush before we get to nearby fishponds. Here we take a longer break while watching birds like Black-winged Stilt, Little Egret, Little Bittern, Penduline Tit or Cetti´s Warbler. We should keep an eye open for a Masked Shrike along the road.
We arrive at Prespa lakes with hopefully some time for a birdwatching before dinner. – Overnight Mikri Prespa
Day 7 Prespa lake
The impression a first-time visitor gets from Prespa is of a remote, isolated place, lost in the mountains. But Prespa is found right in the heart of the Balkans and today is shared by three countries, Albania, Greece and Macedonia.
Rich natural environment and evocative landscape, the birds, the traditional villages and the remarkable Byzantine monuments are the best Prespa’s characteristics. In Prespa the variety of habitats and life-forms make up a complex mosaic of nature: from the lakes and the wet meadows to the forests of oak and beech and the alpine meadows of the mountains. The two lakes (Small and Large Prespa) are among the oldest in Europe and lie at an altitude of 2550 feet while several nearby peaks exceed 6000ft.
The lake island of Golem Grad is home to the world´s largest breeding colony of Dalmatian Pelicans, with around 1000-1200 pairs. White Pelican is found there too though in dozens of pairs only.
During the full day in the area we will also look for the Pygmy Cormorant, Little Bittern, Spoonbill, Purple Heron, Glossy Ibis, Black-winged Stilt, Whiskered Tern, Ferruginous Duck and Moustached Warbler. Bailon´s Crake keeps concealed and we can only spot one with luck. Lake cliffs host Rock Nuthatches and Crag Martins and in villages breed Swallows of the E Mediterranean subspecies transitiva with orange belly. Off the lakeshore our attention will be drawn by passerines and we will hope for Cretzschmar´s Bunting on dry slopes over the village.
On evenings we can be accompanied by whisles of Scops Owl or chirping of Nightjar.
- Overnight Mikri Prespa
Day 8 Departure
Short birdwatching around our hotel in early morning to give farewell to the splendid wildlife in this forgotten corner of Europe. We drive appr. 3 hours to Thessaloniki airport for our return flight.
BIRD REPORT OF VISIT TO MACEDONIA AND GREECE, 21–28 MAY 2011
Martin Hrouzek (leader), James Parry and Rosamond Richardson.
Saturday 21 May
Leaving Thessaloniki at lunchtime, we headed north to the Macedonian border. After managing to miss the access point to the motorway, we travelled instead on the old road and saw our first Black-headed Buntings, stopping at a bridge over a river where Great Reed and Cetti’s Warblers were singing and Red-rumped Swallows hawking over the water. We also saw Bee-eaters there and our first Yellow Wagtail of the “feldegg” or Black-headed race. The birding got even better once we are on the motorway, from which we counted three Rollers, perched on lamp-posts looking for insect road casualties, a Black Stork and White Stork circling together just overhead, Long-legged Buzzard (great views, as so close) and a Common Buzzard carrying a large lizard. After stopping briefly on the busy road through the Demir Kapija Gorge, where we saw Crag Martins (amazingly nesting in the carbon monoxide-filled road tunnel, along with House Martins) and a male Blue Rock Thrush, we drove round the other side of the gorge, where a much quieter road leads close to the rocky slopes. A stunning dark phase Booted Eagle gave great views overhead, as did a singing Nightingale right out in the open on a wire, a passing Black Kite, a superb male Cirl Bunting and our second Blue Rock Thrush of the day. We also found our first tortoise here! From Demir Kapija we drove towards Kavardaci and the village of Marena, with its nesting Lesser Kestrels – we saw at least 20 of these beautiful birds, perched on TV aerials and rooftops. Night-time Kavardaci itself produced two calling Scops Owls and Nightingales right in the town centre!
Sunday 22 May
An early-ish start and off to the Vitachevo Plateau, one of the vulture-feeding sites run by the local partners of the Balkan Vulture Action Plan. A single Griffon Vulture was soaring overhead, and we also had amazing views of four Honey Buzzards, which had been feeding on the ground and took off, slowly gaining height above us. Our exploration of the area produced Hobby, Woodlark, Turtle Dove, Hoopoe, Golden Oriole, Red-backed Shrike, Woodchat Shrike,Black-headed Bunting, Alpine Swift and a calling Lesser-spotted Woodpecker (the last two species in the village of Bojanciste), a very colourful male Ortolan Bunting, a Grey Partridge that posed beautifully for us, and two Egyptian Vultures – the first perched on a crag below us, seen beautifully through the telescope, and the second flushed from a grassy area on the plateau. The rocky slopes also harboured clumps of one the best plants of the whole week, Ramonda nathaliae. Driving back past the old iron ore conveyor belt, we stopped for a superb Roller perched on the wires and then managed very good views of a Barred Warbler, lured in by a recording of its song and flying to and fro around us. We then drove to the village of Mokliste, one of the Egyptian Vulture breeding sites, and were able to see one of the adults on the nest. Like all of Macedonia, this area was alive with Nightingales, and we also saw Syrian Woodpecker and Jay at the nest.
Monday 23 May
We headed off towards the range of low hills east of the Vardar River, pausing on the way to look at the nest of a White Stork that was also home to a large colony of Spanish Sparrows. Many of the male sparrows were busy displaying, the females popping in and out of their nestholes within inches of the stork. Thence to a small valley, hot and dry, feeling very Mediterranean and with birds to match. Immediately on arrival we had amazingly close views of a Short-toed Eagle and soon spotted Tawny Pipit, Orphean and Sardinian Warbler, Short-toed and Calandra Lark, Bee-eaters, Hoopoe and a striking male“feldegg” Yellow (Black-headed) Wagtail. On almost every shrub were singing Black-headed Buntings and Corn Buntings, the latter so common that it was later reduced to “CB”, so wearied were we of its abundance! Woodchat and Red-backed Shrikes were also everywhere, and one of us had the briefest of glimpses of a fly-past Masked Shrike. Walking along the almost dry riverbed produced both Olivaceous and Olive-tree Warblers singing from the scrub, Black-eared Wheatear, Northern Wheatear and at least one very skittish Little Ringed Plover. The area looked great for Stone-curlew, although it being midday we did not see or hear any. We later had lunch at Klisura, looking at the Griffon Vulture nesting colony, with two adult birds visible on the ledges through the telescope. Subalpine Warbler and Cirl Bunting were seen well here too. In the late afternoon, following an adventure with a punctured tyre, we drove to an area of steppe at Gradsko, west of the confluence of the Crna and Vardar rivers. This beautiful landscape, covered in wildflowers and with stupendous views, was heaving with displaying Calandra Larks. A short walk brought us to the brow of a small hill from where it was possible to see a Lanner Falcon nest. This species uses old Raven nests on electricity pylons, and two adult birds were perched nearby. The fantastic evening light allowed us to see virtually every detail on what must be one of the most beautiful of all raptors. With the evening sun flooding the countryside, we paused briefly to look at a Roller on a roadside wire before driving a short distance to an Imperial Eagle nest site. One of the adult eagles was perched on a bush close to the nest, giving great views through the telescope. Two great raptors in under an hour!
Tuesday 24 May
A boat trip on Lake Tikves, a reservoir created in the 1960s and surrounded by dramatic mountain scenery, with wooded slopes running down to the lakeshore. Grey Herons and Great Cormorants were immediately apparent, but it was the raptors that began to steal the show. We quickly spotted Levant Sparrowhawk, Common Buzzard and Long-legged Buzzard soaringover the woods but the action really took off once we had entered a small bay and started scanning the hillsides. At least two Short-toed Eagles were regularly in the air, with their nest clearly visible in a bush on a steep slope, and then a pair of Egyptian Vultures soared into view, giving superb views as they glided about the crags. Their presence caused great excitement, as this particular pair was feared to have been among the three birds illegally poisoned in March. We were lucky enough to see one of the parent birds swooping into the nest ledge – more of a crevice really – carrying food for the chick. At one point a Raven ventured too close and was vigorously chased off by one of the adult vultures, which proved amazingly agile as it twisted and turned after the Raven, passing very close to our boat. Meanwhile, an adult Golden Eagle came over the brow of the hill, mobbed by a Raven and several Jackdaws, and passing almost right over our heads, a Griffon Vulture put in a brief appearance and two Common Kestrels mated enthusiastically on a rock as we sailed by. Black Stork on its nest, two Hobbies, three Honey Buzzards, Alpine Swifts, an out-of-range Sandwich Tern and a distant view of a lone Rock Partridge standing on a prominent crag provided the supporting cast during a truly memorable day’s birding!
Wednesday 25 May
We headed south from Prilep towards the Mariovo area, passing through classic Macedonian countryside en route, with flower-filled meadows and scattered woods. Our first stop was to explore a sunny hillside, packed with orchids and butterflies (and a tortoise!). Quail and Cuckoo were calling and Red-backed, Woodchat and Lesser Grey Shrikes were everywhere – we easily found one Lesser Grey nest in a small shrub only a metre from the ground. Short-toed Eagles and Long-legged Buzzards were soaring overhead, with the sky also full of Calandra Larks busy displaying. Several hundred Common Starlings were also noisily present, with parent birds struggling to satisfy their youngsters’ constant clamouring for food. From here we headed off towards the village of Stavica, screeching to a halt at the sight of a Wallcreeper flying off a roadside crag. Although it could not be relocated, a scan of the village produced superb views of a male Rosy-coloured Starling, perched prominently in an acacia tree and “singing” away. Also seen well there were Lesser Whitethroat and a pair of Northern Wheatears, and as we continued driving we passed through wooded areas where we saw Hawfinch and Sombre Tit, the latter picking insects off the road surface before posing briefly in a roadside tree. We then stopped at Sveti Ilja, where a stunning pair of Black-eared Wheatears gave great views, as did a singing Orphean Warbler and a displaying Subalpine Warbler. However, a single male Rock Bunting was hard to see well and Rock Thrushes proved frustratingly elusive until finally a brightly coloured male flew past, white rump flashing, and then perched just long enough in a treetop for us to get him in the telescope. Not to be outdone, a male Blue Rock Thrush put in an appearance just as we were leaving! We then headed for the almost deserted village of Monastir, with Bee-eaters and Red-rumped Swallows along the roadside wires and, bizarrely, a Scops Owl calling at 5pm! The day’s highlight came soon thereafter with fantastic views of a second Blue Rock Thrush male in superb plumage, perched obligingly on the outcrop just above the village, whilst the road back to Prilep produced at least two Common Swallows of the transitiva race, with pink-coloured underparts.
Thursday 26 May
By road across the Pelagonian plain from Prilep to Bitola, seeing a pair of Grey Partridge and several Lapwings on the way. After exploring the historic centre of Bitola, once one of the most important towns in the Ottoman Balkans and with some impressive if derelict mansion houses, and spotting Grey Wagtails on the town’s river, we drove up onto the Galicica Plateau between Lakes Ohrid and Prespa. With its peak at some 2300 metres, this slab of exposed limestone is outstanding for plants. A stop for some wild irises on the way up produced a sighting of a superb Goshawk soaring over the forests that cloak the lower slopes and a flock of Alpine Swifts. The open plateau itself is dotted with junipers and small wild azaleas and the birdlife here was initially reminiscent of upland Britain, with singing Tree Pipit, Skylark and Yellowhammer, together with a pair each of Stonechat and Whinchat and a persistent Cuckoo calling in the distance. Yet there was no mistaking our southerly latitude, for we also recorded Tawny Pipit, Hoopoe, Red-backed Shrike and Ortolan Bunting and caught a quick glimpse of a female Rock Thrush flying past at high speed. Can there be a more elusive bird?!
Friday 27 May
A full day spent exploring the superb wetland habitats around the two Prespa lakes. There was no missing the pelicans, hundreds of which were soaring above us in the rising thermals before they headed off from their breeding site on Little Prespa to their feeding grounds on Big Prespa. There were plenty of herons on the move too, and within half an hour we had seen Grey Heron, Purple Heron, Night Heron, Great White Egret and Little Egret in flight over our heads and often at close range. A short stop at a hide overlooking the wet meadows and reed-fringed pool produced Squacco Heron, Bearded Tit, Ferruginous Duck, Pochard and Marsh Harrier, with the most obvious passerine being Great Reed Warbler, hordes of which were chuntering away noisily in the reedbeds. Both Red-backed and Lesser Grey Shrikes were hunting from the wires and bushes, with Hoopoes busy passing to and fro and then 14 Rosy-coloured Starlings passed overhead – clearly part of a wider movement across the region. We then moved nearer to the lakeshore and had fantastic views of twenty or so Dalmatian Pelicans, including some in full breeding plumage, gathered on a pontoon alongside a couple of Great White Pelicans and several each of Great Cormorant and Pygmy Cormorants. The lake surface was dotted with pelicans, cormorants of both species and also Great-crested Grebes, and a single female Goosander flew past – seemingly unexpected, but this species apparently now breeds locally. A pair of White Storks were nesting on a purpose-built platform and a Water Rail was squealing in the reeds. Closer examination of the lakeside willows produced fantastic views of a Penduline Tit and its nest. We then drove the short distance to the causeway that connects the mainland with the island of Agios Achileos, and wandered through the scrub and open areas, having great views of Olivaceous and Orphean Warbler, Cirl Bunting and six more Rosy-coloured Starlings, which had tacked themselves onto a much larger group of Common Starlings and posed beautifully in the top of a tree.
Saturday 28 May
A final visit to the lakes and the last chance to find Glossy Ibis and Little Bittern. The ibises sometimes feed in the lakeside meadows where the water buffalo graze, but with no sign of them there this morning we headed off to the causeway reedbeds to try and see little bittern. We saw Subalpine Warblers on our way back. After encountering three more tortoises (one of which was scavenging a dead snake on the road!), we sat down overlooking a small reed-fringed pool, occupied by no fewer than three pairs of Little Grebe and from where we could also see the apparently chaotic Dalmatian Pelican breeding colony beyond. After a wait of only a few minutes a female Little Bittern flew across in front of us, followed by a male shortly afterwards and then a second female a few minutes after that!. Astonishing, but there was more to come as we relocated to the narrow neck between the two lakes, looking down on the reedbeds from the roadside above. Almost immediately a stunning male Little Bittern flew into view, landing on a mass of dead reeds and perching in full view for a few seconds. Incredibly, a second male then flew in, prompting a brief territorial spat before both birds flew off and disappeared into the reeds. A memorable end to a fantastic week’s wildlife watching in a truly special corner of Europe.