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crossbill guides

Eastern Rhodopes Nestos, evros and dadia - bulgaria and greece


crossbill guides

Eastern Rhodopes nestos, evros and dadia bulgaria and greece


Crossbill Guides: Eastern Rhodopes - Nestos, Evros and Dadia Bulgaria and Greece (first print: 2013) Initiative, text and research: Dirk Hilbers, Alex Tabak, Albert Vliegenthart, Herman Dierickx Additional research: Kim Lotterman, Gino Smeulders, Bouke ten Cate, Anneke Arts Editing: John Cantelo, Brian Clews, Cees Hilbers, Riet Hilbers, Kim Lotterman, Albert Vliegenthart Illustrations: Chris Braat, Alex Tabak, Horst Wolter Maps: Dirk Hilbers, Alex Tabak, Albert Vliegenthart, Horst Wolter Type and image setting: Oscar Lourens Print: Drukkerij Tienkamp, Groningen ISBN 978-94-91648-01-4 This book is printed on paper of FSC and PEFC certified sources.

Š 2013 Crossbill Guides Foundation, Arnhem, The Netherlands All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced in any form by print, photocopy, microfilm or any other means without the written permission of the Crossbill Guides Foundation. The Crossbill Guides Foundation publishes its guidebooks in association with KNNV Publishing, the Saxifraga Foundation and Swarovski Optics. SAXIFRAGA foundation

This guidebook was produced in collaboration with a joint project of ARK nature, New Thracian Gold and Avalon. www.ark.eu www.newthraciangold.eu www.avalon.nl


crossbill guides foundation This guidebook is a product of the non-profit foundation Crossbill Guides. By publishing these books we want to introduce more people to the joys of Europe’s beautiful natural heritage and to increase the understanding of the ecological values that underlie conservation efforts. Most of this heritage is protected for ecological reasons and we want to provide insight into these reasons to the public at large. By doing so we hope that more people support the ideas behind nature conservation. For more information about us and our guides you can visit our website at: www.crossbillguides.org


highlights of the eastern rhodopes

4

Highlights of the Eastern Rhodopes

1

Marvel at the original, authentic landscapes of the Eastern Rhodopes, with its friendly people and ancient land use.

2

Watch the birds of prey in Dadia and at the cliffs of Madzharovo. This region has the highest raptor diversity in Europe.

3

Explore the many tracks and trails, partially forgotten and overgrown, where you stumble on unexpected flora and fauna or ancient Thracian relicts.

4

Visit the coast, where you stand eyeball to eyeball with pelicans, flamingos, ibises and egrets.


highlights of the eastern rhodopes

5

Go search for reptiles, of which this region has about the highest diversity in Europe. Especially the many tortoises are a special attraction of this region.

6

Rest aside the picture-perfect rivers Arda, Krumovitsa and Byala Reka and enjoy the many Black Storks that fish along their shores.

7

Ramble over the many dry grasslands and marvel at the diversity of wildflowers, butterflies and big insects like giant grasshoppers and praying mantises.

8

Go out to watch the big game at Studen Kladenets, photograph the vultures from a hide, and, with luck, hear the Wolves howl at night. The Eastern Rhodopes has a high density of large predators like Wolves and Jackals.

5


about this guide

6

About this guide This guide is meant for all those who enjoy being in and learning about nature, whether you already know all about it or not. It is set up a little differently from most guides. We focus on explaining the natural and ecological features of an area rather than merely describing the site. We choose this approach because the nature of an area is more interesting, enjoyable and valuable when seen in the context of its complex relationships. The interplay of different species with each other and with their environment is astonishing. The clever tricks and gimmicks that are put to use to beat life’s challenges are as fascinating as they are countless. Take our namesake the Crossbill: at first glance it’s just a big finch with an awkward bill. But there is more to the Crossbill than meets the eye. This bill is beautifully adapted for life in coniferous forests. It is used like scissors to cut open pinecones and eat the seeds that are unobtainable for other birds. In the Scandinavian countries where Pine and Spruce take up the greater part of the forests, several Crossbill species have each managed to answer two of life’s most pressing questions: how to get food and avoid direct competition. By evolving crossed bills, each differing subtly, they have secured a monopoly of the seeds produced by cones of varying sizes. So complex is this relationship that scientists are still debating exactly how many different species of Crossbill actually exist. Now this should heighten the appreciation of what at first glance was merely a plumb red bird with a beak that doesn’t close properly. Once its interrelationships are seen, nature comes alive, wherever you are. To some, impressed by the ‘virtual’ familiarity that television has granted to the wilderness of the Amazon, the vastness of the Serengeti or the sublimity of Yellowstone, European nature may seem a puny surrogate, good merely for the casual stroll. In short, the argument seems to be that if you haven’t seen a Jaguar, Lion or Grizzly Bear, then you haven’t seen the ‘real thing’. Nonsense, of course. But where to go? And how? What is there to see? That is where this guide comes in. We describe the how, the why, the when, the where and the how come of Europe’s most beautiful areas. In clear and accessible language, we explain the nature of the Eastern Rhodopes, Nestos, Evros and Dadia and refer extensively to routes where the area’s features can be observed best. We try to make the Eastern Rhodopes come alive. We hope that we succeed.


how to use this guide

How to use this guide This guidebook contains a descriptive and a practical section. The descriptive part comes first and gives you insight into the most striking and interesting natural features of the area. It provides an understanding of what you will see when you go out exploring. The descriptive part consists of a landscape section (marked with a red bar), describing the habitats, the history and the landscape in general, and of a flora and fauna section (marked with a green bar), which discusses the plants and animals that occur in the region. The second part offers the practical information (marked with a purple bar). A series of routes (walks and car drives) are carefully selected to give you a good flavour of all the habitats, flora and fauna that the Eastern Rhodopes have to offer. At the start of each route description, a number of icons give a quick overview of the characteristics of each route. These icons are explained in the margin of this page. The final part of the book (marked with blue squares) provides some basic tourist information and some tips on finding plants, birds and other animals. There is no need to read the book from cover to cover. Instead, each small chapter stands on its own and refers to the routes most suitable for viewing the particular features described in it. Conversely, descriptions of each route refer to the chapters that explain more in depth the most typical features that can be seen along the way. In the back of the guide we have included a list of all the mentioned plant and animal species, with their scientific names and translations into German and Dutch. Some species names have an asterix (*) following them. This indicates that there is no official English name for this species and that we have taken the liberty of coining one. We realise this will meet with some reservations by those who are familiar with scientific names. For the sake of readability however, we have decided to translate the scientific name, or, when this made no sense, we gave a name that best describes the species’ appearance or distribution. Please note that we do not want to claim these as the official names. We merely want to make the text easier to follow for those not familiar with scientific names. An overview of the area described in this book is given on the map on page 13. For your convenience we have also turned the inner side of the back flap into a map of the area indicating all the described routes. Descriptions in the explanatory text refer to these routes.

7 car route

walking route

beautiful scenery history

geology

interesting flora interesting invertebrate life interesting reptile and amphibian life interesting birdlife interesting mammals visualising the ecological contexts described in this guide


table of contents

8

Table of contents Landscape Geographical overview Geology Climate Habitats Lagoons, lakes and other wetlands Dunes, steppe and arable land Rivers and brooks Scrubland Forest Crags and cliffs History Nature Conservation

11 12 14 19 20 22 26 30 34 38 43 45 54

Flora and fauna Flora Mammals Birds Reptiles and amphibians Insects and other invertebrates

63 66 84 87 105 114

Practical Part Routes in Kardzhali region Route 1: From Kardzhali to the Borovitsa river Route 2: Along Studen Kladenets reservoir Route 3: Stunning Krumovitsa at Dolna Kula Additional things to do in the Kardzhali region Routes in Madzharovo region Route 4: Studen Kladenets and Devil’s Canyon Route 5: Along the Arda River Route 6: Where Arda and Krumovitsa rivers meet Route 7: Hike to Thracian tombs Additional things to do in the Madhzarovo region Routes in Kirkovo region Route 8: The border trail Additional things to do in the Kirkovo region Routes in the Ivaylovgrad region Route 9: Walking down beautiful Armira Valley

125 126 127 131 134 137 141 143 147 151 154 158 159 160 164 165 166


table of contents

Route 10: Hike to Byala Reka Meanders Additional things to do in the Ivaylovgrad region Routes in the Thracian Plain Route 11: The Nestos Gorge Route 12: The Nestos Delta Route 13: Porto Lagos and Lake Vistonida Route 14: Lake Ismarida and Ptelia Lagoon Additional sites in the Thracian Plain Routes in Dadia and Evros Delta Route 15: To the Drana Lagoon Route 16: The Evros heartland Route 17: Hiking Dadia Forest Route 18: Further into Dadia forest Additional sites in Dadia and Evros

169 173 176 177 179 184 188 191 193 195 199 202 205 211

Tourist information & Observation tips Birdwatching list Acknowledgements Picture credits Illustration credits Species list and translation

215 228 235 236 237 238

List of text boxes Ores A new future for the Rhodopes? Special plant species Trees and shrubs in the eastern Mediterranean region The eagle and the tortoise Bath Whites

18 60 68 83 91 117

9


habitats

20

Habitats Within the area described in this guidebook, there is a good range of different habitats. On the coastal plain there are brackish and freshwater marshes, Mediterranean scrubland, broad rivers, steppes and agricultural land. Venture into the mountains and you come across deciduous woodlands, scrublands and rocky terrain dissected by mountain streams. The only habitats that are absent are those that are typical of the higher mountains. For these you need to go a little further west, to the western Rhodopes (see page 225).

A cross section from coast to mountain top of the Eastern Rhodopes and coastal plain of Thrace. The habitat of the highest region is best developed in the Western Rhodopes.

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So far, this description could fit many regions in Europe. But there is something odd about the habitats in our region. Look at a random image of the Eastern Rhodopes (for example the picture on page 34) and you will have a hard time deciding which habitat you are looking at. Pure Mediterranean scrublands are rare, as are pure steppes, agricultural land, large rock slopes or forests in the sense that is familiar to people of northern Europe. What covers vast areas of the Eastern Rhodopes is a blend of the above: rocky scrub, scrubby pasture, grassy rock slopes, patchy woodland, etc. There is a continuous flow between the habitat types.

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eastern rhodopes


habitats

This ‘messy’ appearance of habitats is enhanced by the fact that the Eastern Rhodopes are, with the exception of the central ridge, not high enough to show a clear effect of the altitude. Instead, the exposure to the sun (north vs south slopes), depth of the soil (shallow, quickly drying vs deeper moisture retaining soils) and land use are the main factors that determine the succession of habitats in the region. Species of birds and plants and other organisms are usually tied to one or a few specific ecosystems. In the Eastern Rhodopes, with its messy blend of habitats, they are more unpredictable in their occurrence. But the situation is even more difficult. The Eastern Rhodopes lies on a crossroads of

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fields & meadows

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temperate European, Pontic (Eastern Steppe) and Mediterranean regions, and flora and fauna of all three realms mix freely (see page 63). So keep in mind when reading the following chapters that they suggest a tidier division of ecosystems than you can usually make in the field. But this is precisely what makes this region so interesting: the unpredictability of the landscape (you never know what habitat lies around the bend), and the variation in flora and fauna (you can never be certain what species a habitat might hold).

landscape

21

The landscape of the Eastern Rhodopes consists of a patchwork of habitats. If neatly laid out for you, it would look like this: beech forests on the north slopes and arable fields and meadows in the valleys with deeper soils. Areas with shallow soil are covered in steppe grassland, scrub and rocky fields. The south slopes are covered in oak forests,or bare cliffs.


lagoons, lakes and other wetlands

22

Lagoons, lakes and other wetlands Freshwater wetlands with reedbeds feature on routes 13, 14 and site A on page 191. The best sites for coastal lagoons, salt marshes and brackish habitats are on routes 12, 14, 15, site D on page 192 and C on page 212. Riverside wetlands are present on routes 1, 5 and 16.

The wetlands of the Eastern Rhodopes and lowlands of Thrace.

The superb, bird-filled wetlands are the big draw of this part of Greece and form the reason why it is so attractive to combine the Bulgarian Eastern Rhodopes with the Greek lowland in one holiday. Massive flocks of pelicans, trees full of adorable little Pygmy Cormorants, the massive choirs of Tree Frogs on spring evenings, the busy buzzing of hundreds of dragonflies in summer – this is nature at its finest. Typical of this region, there isn’t a single core wetland, but rather various marshes in fairly close proximity. The larger rivers, such as the Nestos (feeding the Nestos Delta), the Kompsatos (feeding lake Vistonida) and the Evros support the largest wetlands in the area, but each small river that runs down from the mountains has its own separate exit to the sea, each with its own small wetland. Of the 10 Greek Ramsar sites (protected wetlands) 5 are found in North-east Greece. Sadly, all these marshes have lost substantial areas to agriculture and some sites even have disappeared altogether (see conservation section on page 54). Nevertheless, what remains is – though under pressure – still marvellous and supports a superb range of birds throughout the year. Wetlands can be devided in fresh and salt water marshes, each with their own attractions. The latter are found exkardzhali marshes clusively at the coast, while freshwater ivaylovgrad marshes are usually – but not always – further inland. In the larger deltas, both xanthi fresh and salt-water vistonida marshes habitats are present, with a range of interalexandroupoli mediates between the nestos delta evros delta two.

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lagoons, lakes and other wetlands

23

reed beds

steppe fre w sh ate

brackish meadow

r > tw

sal

glasswort steppe (salt marsh)

mud flats

ate r dry

Freshwater wetlands

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wet

Freshwater marshes form a patchy habitat dominated by open water and a broad zone of reedbeds with scattered willow woodland, some tamarisk bushes and the occasional large specimen of White Poplar mixed in. Wetlands are a natural sink for nutrients that are brought down by the rivers from the mountains. For plants, this is a muddy land of milk and honey. As a result, there is a strong competition for space, which is won by only a few species, like reed and willow. These grow in large numbers, making wetlands not the best places to search for a diversity of plant species. They are, however, superb for birds. Micro-organisms thrive in the nutritious soup that is the marsh. They are food for small invertebrates, which in turn form the menu of larger ones. Eventually the nutrients are stored as insects, fish, frogs, snakes, terrapins and other animals, all of which feature on the menu of birds. Freshwater lagoons attract both migrant and resident birds. Thousands of pelicans, cormorants, ducks, geese, herons, terns and Spoonbills feed in the marshes each year. The reeds form a unique habitat, a sheltered jungle that can reach densities of 100 reed stems per square metre. Various species of songbirds have specialised to live in this habitat, such as Reed, Great Reed and Moustached Warblers, Reed Bunting (particularly in winter) plus larger

landscape

The water level and amount of salt determines the type of wetland that develops in a certain spot. The fresh water habitats have suffered most from the expansion and intensification of agriculture. Many brackish and saline habitats are still well preserved.


lagoons, lakes and other wetlands

24

birds like Little Bittern, Purple Heron, Glossy Ibis and Water Rail. Many of them use the reedbeds and the willows as a shelter and nesting place and hunt on the edges for fish and invertebrates. Of the two wetland types, the freshwater version was hit hardest during the land use changes of the 20th century. Ismarida lake (route 14) is the only natural freshwater lake left in the region. The wetlands were a source of diseases, such as malaria (now extirpated), but once drained provided fertile and easy to cultivate land. Once the technology was there, the choice was easy, and many freshwater lakes and huge areas of marsh in the deltas were drained. As a result the populations of some of the herons, Spoonbills, terns and reed-dwelling birds have fallen dramatically.

The coastal marshes are jam-packed with birds, often with several species mixed together, such as on this branch, where Little Egret, Spoonbill, Squacco and Night Herons huddle together.

Salt and brackish wetlands

The landscape of the coastal lagoons is very different, yet the same processes are at play here. The sea and, indirectly, the river add great amounts of nutrients to the soil, which makes a rich fare for many small organisms. But the brackish conditions of the coastal lagoons add a challenge: the high salt concentrations make the absorption of water very difficult for plants. Salt marshes are the paradoxical wet deserts â&#x20AC;&#x201C; like the torment of Tantalus, there is plenty of water available but it is unusable. Only a few species found a way to survive here. These are glassworts, Sea Purslane and, where salt concentrations decrease, various rushes, grasses and tamarisks. This vegetation is usually low and exposed, attracting a different set of birds. The food of these marshes consists mostly of small species of shrimps, worms and molluscs, which are appreciated by flamingos, shelducks and a variety of waders. Typical saltmarsh breeding birds are Black-winged Stilt, Kentish Plover, Little Tern, Mediterranean and Slender-billed Gulls. During migration, all sorts of waders flock in to refuel before flying to

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lagoons, lakes and other wetlands

their breeding or wintering grounds. The high salinity is also the reason that salt marshes are better preserved than freshwater marshes. The salinity poses a serious problem for crops, making the salt water marshes much less suitable for conversion to agricultural land.

Intermediate habitats

The division between fresh and salt water is not a sharp one. There is a brackish intermediate zone. Here, a different set of habitats is found. Depending on the amount of water and concentration of the salt, there are meadows, steppes, mudflats, dunes and tamarisk thickets (see illustration on page 23). The salt makes tree growth nearly impossible, so these marshes are naturally open and steppe-like. Hence, they are important haunts for steppe animals, ranging from birds (Calandra and Short-toed Larks, Stone Curlew, but also the rare Isabelline Wheatear), to various species of grasshoppers, Suslik and the secretive Marbled Polecat. Small pools in this zone are the sites for the emblematic Spur-winged Plover. The pretty Oriental Iris also has its few populations in these intermediate zones. These brackish habitats are threatened by waste dumping, encroachment of agriculture and real estate development, but in Ismarida Nestos and, above all, Evros, there still are some good areas left.

landscape

25

The brackish meadows in winter, near Porto Lagos.

The Oriental Iris, here at its western limit, flowers in brackish and freshwater marshes.


dunes, steppe and arable land

26

Dunes, steppe and arable land The routes covering patches of steppe grasslands are routes 1, 9, 14, 15, 16 and 18, and sites A on page 137 and A on page 173. Bird and flower-rich arable fields are present on routes 2, 3, 14, 15 and sites D on page 174 and C on page 212. The better strips of dunes are on routes 12, 14 and site C on page 212.

Two types of steppes: the deep-soiled grassy variety of Drabisna (site A on page 173; top) and the thinsoiled stony type (route 4; bottom).

Steppes are treeless grasslands with perhaps a thin scatter of bushes. They occur where the soil is either too dry or the growing season too short to support trees, but the conditions are still suitable for herbs and grasses. Natural steppes occur on the Anatolian highlands and the shores of the Black Sea. The latter stretch out east all the way into Mongolia. At the periphery of the steppes are found steppe woodlands: areas where steppe grasslands alternate with woodlands, where the conditions are favourable. In the coastal lowlands and stony flats of the Eastern Rhodopes, with their cold winters and hot summers, conditions for trees and shrubs are tough, but not impossible. Where the soil is thin or saline, patches of steppe habitat occur, but else-

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where shrubs and trees would, albeit slowly, colonise these soils, if nature had its way. But nature doesn’t have its way. Grazing sheep and bushfires keep these near-steppes open. Low grazing intensity and infrequent bushfires create a habitat that is close to the ‘true’ steppes that are found just a little further east in Turkey and the coast of Bulgaria. Human meddling has extended the range of the steppes westwards. How different are the soil conditions in the Thracian coastal plain and in the broad river valleys! Their fertile, moisture-retaining soils are excellent for tree growth. But also for the cultivation of crops. Hence the forests of these plains have made way for arable fields, which turn out to be excellent substitutes for many steppe species. So paradoxically, in present times, these fertile soils have steppe-like characteristics too. With the natural steppes so close by, both arable fields and saline and rocky ‘pseudo’-steppes of the region support a large number of plants and animals that have their core distribution areas on the natural grasslands further east. Sometimes it is hard to tell whether a grassland is a natural (primary) steppe, or a man-made grassland. And many steppe species certainly don’t care about the difference.

27

Steppes under pressure

‘Old style’ agriculture consisted of a balance between crop growing and husbandry. In typical Mediterranean fashion – and radically different from that of central and western Europe – a plot of land didn’t have a single function. Crops may be grown in one year, but the next few years the fallow land served as grazing ground for cattle, while it always produced honey from bees and served as a hunting ground to complement the protein diet. In the 20th century, the balance between husbandry and crop growing started to shift – and it continues to shift today. Arable farming has intensified and has grown at the expense of sheep and cattle grazing. Most of the herds have disappeared, but here and there you can still see them grazing fallow lands on the roadsides. Today, the plains of North-east Greece welcome you with large fields of tobacco, cotton and various other crops, which have little to offer the original steppe inhabitants. The

landscape

Low-intensity grazing is vital to maintain a good quality of steppe habitat.


dunes, steppe and arable land

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steppe-like grasslands in the Rhodopes underwent an equally disastrous transformation: ungrazed grasslands became overgrown by bushes. In either case, the steppe fauna and flora disappears.

Flora and fauna of the steppes

Two species of dry grasslands: the Bronze Bush-cricket* (Bradyporus dasypus; top) and the Balkan Wall Lizard (bottom).

As long as they are not too intensely grazed or used for crop-growing, steppes support a rich plant and animal life. Amongst the grasses there is a variety of wildflowers which includes some species traditionally considered as plants of arable fields in western Europe, such as Cornflower, Corn Cockle, Eastern Larkspur and Wild Chamomile. These were originally steppe plants and occur here in their native habitat. Their seeds are eaten by Calandra, Short-toed and Crested Larks and Corn and Black-headed Buntings, which can be very numerous in the steppes and in grain fields. Rodents play a central role in the steppe ecosystem. On the one hand they are the gardeners of the steppes, creating open patches and shifting heaps of seeds. On the other hand, they form the staple diet for raptors and snakes. A key species is, or better was, the Suslik or European Ground Squirrel, which is the favoured food of, for example, the Long-legged Buzzard. Unfortunately, the Suslik is disappearing partially due to intensification of agriculture (the plough rips open their burrows) and partially, it is thought, by disease. With the patchy distribution of high quality steppe environment, many places are too distant to be recolonised and remain empty. Another important feature of the steppe ecosystem will become evident when you visit the area in summer. Thousands of grasshoppers, both big and small, feed on the grasses. Large insects are a key element of the flora and fauna of the steppe. They are important food for such attractive birds as Hoopoes, Lesser Grey Shrikes, Rollers, Bee-eaters, Little Owls, Stone Curlews and Lesser Kestrels. Apart from grasshoppers, lizards (mostly Balkan Wall Lizard here) and beetles are also important prey for these birds.

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Dunes

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A special kind of open steppe is found on the dunes, where grasses, bushes and wildflowers grow patchily on the open sand. Water percolates very quickly between the sand grains and can only be accessed by plants with long roots. Other species grow, flower and produce seeds only in the short period in which sufficient rainwater or dew is present. Hot sand allows rapid evaporation, so plants like Cottonweed and Sea Medick form a â&#x20AC;&#x2DC;felt coatâ&#x20AC;&#x2122; to keep the moisture in and the sun out. Not many species have found ways to adapt to this peculiar, desert-like environment, but those that have, are often exclusively found here. For most animals, the sun is less of a problem, because they can dig themselves into the sand to stay cool. Various species of reptiles occur, of which the beautiful and venomous Nose-horned Viper is noteworthy. There is even an amphibian adapted to living in this habitat. The Eastern Spadefoot is able to dig itself, as its name implies, deep into the sand. This beautiful animal is most easily found in early spring (March) when it mates and deposits its eggs in the nearby lagoons. If you plan to explore the dune habitats in North-east Greece, it is wise to set aside the memories you may have of the dunes of western Europe. Otherwise, you may be disappointed. The Aegean Sea is a very tame sea, with hardly noticeable tides. Consequently, the row of dunes is narrow and the dunes themselves are low. Unfortunately, they are often littered with waste, particularly there where many people use the beach. This means the coastline is not always the prettiest of places to visit, but in some areas (such as on routes 12 and 13), there are still stretches of beautiful coastline left to explore. And the flora and fauna is great, even when you have to shove aside half a shoe sole and an eroded bottle of sun lotion to take a decent photo.

The dunes near Keramoti with view of Thasos (route 12).

landscape


nature conservation

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Nature Conservation Prior to the 1930s, the Eastern Rhodopes and the Thracian coastal plain must have been a naturalist’s heaven. There were wild mountain ranges full of game, bears and wolves. There was picturesque, small-scale agriculture, and large areas of steppe-like grasslands, both of which sported a wide array of plants, insects, reptiles, birds and mammals. There were vast swamplands alive with waterfowl. Stunning old-growth woodlands flanked the larger rivers. From the 1930s onwards things began to change and did so radically. The lowland wetlands and plains received the greatest blows. So extreme was this that of the many former paradises, only small remnants remain. These remnants nevertheless, boast an immense natural wealth. The Rhodopes, on the other hand, seem to have sat out the great changes of the 20th century relatively unharmed. But here too, problems lurk underneath the surface.

The last part of the once vast Kotza Orman old-growth riverine forest – the pride of the Nestos river. Now it is enclosed by poplar plantations (route 12).

Problems in the coastal lowlands

The top sites of Nestos, Evros and, further west, Kerkini, are a much degraded version of the marshlands that once graced these locations – yet if you reflect on how superb the remaining wetlands still are, you can easily imagine that they were previously little short of a natural paradise! The huge Kotza Orman primeval forest (route 12) once stretched along the whole of the lower Nestos and measured roughly 100 km2 – about the size of central Europe’s largest pristine forest, Bialowieza in Poland. The forest, with forest giants more than 40 metres tall, once formed the border with Turkey and so was valued as a strategic barrier against the Turks. During the brief Bulgarian occupation in ’42 – ’45, the forest became a National Park and the exclusive hunting ground for the Bulgar-

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ian king. Up until then, Bears and Wolves still roamed the forest. When the land returned to Greece, conservationists struggled for a similar protective status, but to no avail. The forest was cut down and replaced by poplar plantations. Only a small piece of the original forest remains. The Evros Delta met a similar fate. The Evros was, together with the Nestos and Danube Delta, the last large river delta without large-scale changes to vegetation and hydrology. As with most deltas, the Evros consists of a sea-water dominated, (saline) part and one dominated by fresh riverine water. In the 1953 land reclamation, nearly the entire freshwater zone was transformed into agricultural land. The remaining areas, too saline to be suitable for agriculture, were also degraded. The formerly splendid Drana

55

Traditional sheep grazing in the Nestos.

lagoon in the Delta (route 15) was destroyed when it dried up after the sea inlet was blocked by local farmers concerned that saline water would to affect the surrounding fields. Its subsequent restoration is one of the great Greek success stories of nature conservation. The agricultural land that was gained by draining these marshes is now used to produce cotton and tobacco â&#x20AC;&#x201C; two crops for which fertilizers, pesticides and (lots of) water is required. Water is taken from some of the marshes to irrigate the fields and the poisoned effluent then flows back into the marsh ecosystem destroying it from within.

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Problems in the mountains

The Eastern Rhodopes, including Dadia, is one of those European regions where the rich landscape of traditional grazing and wood cutting â&#x20AC;&#x201C; activities that have over centuries greatly enhanced biodiversity â&#x20AC;&#x201C; has been well preserved. But this is not to say that the big changes in the 20th century have left the region unaffected. The creation of reservoirs has destroyed part of the Arda river and surrounding lands. Today, there are plans for additional hydropower stations, including one that would affect the famous Arda rivier bends near Madzharovo. This would be disastrous. The planting of pine woods, instead of native woodlands, takes yet another bite out of the pristine fabric of the Eastern Rhodopes. Fortunately, there are no plans for new plantations. Howeever, there are plans for big wind turbine parks on the mountain peaks on both sides of the border. These parks present a particularly tricky problem for, on the one hand, the increasing use of renewable energy sources is to be applauded, but, on the other hand, the chosen locations have a very negative effect on migratory birds and bats. They are also such a blemish on the natural landscape, that they provide a key focal point for both the Greek and Bulgarian conservationists. Power lines are another major threat to birds in general and raptors in particular. An in-

A grazed open forest near Gorno Pole (site B on page 158). This valuable habitat type is threatened due to the disappearance of herds of grazing animals that keep the forests open.

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vestigation executed by the Bulgarian Society for the Protection of Birds (BSPB) found that whilst White Storks and Common Buzzards were the main victims, Egyptian Vulture, Short-toed Eagle and Raven were also electrocuted. Finally, hunting and poaching continues to be a big problem, as is the use of poisoned bait. In 2010 the entire Griffon Vulture and Golden Eagle populations in the Nestos gorge – some 16 birds in total – were wiped out by farmers who put out poisoned bait. This was shocking news, but the explanation behind this act made it even worse: it wasn’t even meant to kill the eagles, but instead wolves – as if that makes it OK. Indeed, herdsmen on both sides of the border see Wolves as important enemies of livestock, and poisoned bait is regarded as a good way to get rid of them. Eagles and vultures are collateral damage. There are already compensation schemes for damage to livestock in place, but they are either not sufficient, not adequate or not well enough known. Despite damage being hardly reported, poisoning is still taking place.

Nature conservation efforts

There is no lack of challenges in this region, but, fortunately, the story is not all gloom and doom. In Bulgaria almost 34 percent of the land is currently protected (at least in theory) in the Natura 2000 network of protected areas. After Slovenia, this is the highest amount of the European Union! As far as the Eastern Rhodopes are concerned, many parts of the region are also under official Natura 2000 protection, but effective domestic legislation is still missing, let alone enforced within the Natura 2000 network. Great stretches of the Arda river system and that of the Byala Reka are covered by Natura 2000, and are National nature reserves. Various national and foreign nature organisations are active in the region, including WWF, BSPB (Bulgarian Society of the Protection of Birds), the Ark Foundation and New Thracian Gold. The latter two were involved in the making of this guidebook. The BSPB is fighting for a more sensible deployment of wind turbines. In September 2012, they started a project called ‘The return of the Neophron’ (an old name for Egyptian Vulture). This aims to insulate power lines in the area where Egyptian Vultures have their greatest concentration of nests in Bulgaria: Madzharovo. The Dutch Ark Foundation and New Thracian Gold are carrying out a big project, funded by the Dutch Lottery, to reintroduce ‘big grazers’ (Konik Horses, Short-horn Cattle and Red Deer) in the region. The aim is to re-

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Riding the ‘wobbly vulture’ – part of the education equipment of the Vulture Centre of Madzharovo.

place the role of the dwindling herds of sheep (see box on page 60). New Thracian Gold is involved in the second part of this project, which focuses on setting up sustainable and nature-based tourism in the region. In Greece, nature conservation too has achieved a lot in the previous century. Most of what hasn’t been lost in the devastating 20th century is now part of a National Park. All of the sites received the stamps and ribbons certifying their importance: they are IBAs (Important Bird Areas), Ramsar Protected Wetland, ‘Special Protection Area’ and proposed as a ‘Site of Community Importance’ in the Natura 2000 network. Together, they place these sites under strict regulation that (again only in theory) prohibits any harmful activities. In many parks restoration projects were set up to regain the former splendour of affected sites. Important successful restoration projects were the re-establishment of the Drana lagoon in Evros (route 15) and the restoration of Ismarida lake (route 14). The latter – the last original freshwater lagoon of the region – was nearly destroyed when a channel to the sea was created allowing salt water to enter the lake. This attempt to boost fish production nearly killed off the entire existing bird population, but fortunately, the measures were reversed in time so that severe damage to the ecosystem was avoided. Special schemes, such as feeding stations for the vultures of Dadia, have been put into place to conserve specific birds. An EU Life project in the Nestos delta has created breeding rafts for terns (BirdWING, see page 222, has carried out a similar project in Kerkini) and focuses on the conservation of the last remaining Spur-winged Plovers in the delta. A similar project seeks to preserve the wintering grounds of Lesser White-fronted Geese. Unfortunately, the paper results are better than the reality. Theoretically, the conservation measures should be effective, but the park managements are understaffed (a reflection of the lack of political support) and controlling illegal activities is sometimes virtually impossible. Sadly, the importance of these natural areas, and the necessity to preserve them, is not fully shared by other stakeholders. Local farmers and fishermen, who have used the wetlands to hunt and fish for centuries, are not easily

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convinced that their activities have to be limited or even banned. Authorities often turn a blind eye towards the illegal construction of hunting blinds, the dumping of waste and even poaching. These activities disturb the birds and habitats even within the boundaries of the National Parks. Needless to say, during the hunting season, any bird that stretches out as much as a wingtip beyond the core protected area is immediately blasted to kingdom come. All these issues are rooted in one overriding problem – the lack of recognition of the importance of Greece’s natural heritage in general and that of the north-east in particular. It is very illustrative that until 1981, there was no bird field guide in the Greek language and that the Hellenic Bird Society was only established in the following year. (The Greeks, though, were six years ahead of their Bulgarian neighbours in establishing a national bird society). There was simply not enough interest to warrant the publication of such a book. Therefore, conservation organisations are keen on creating public interest in these sites – public interest from within the region, but also from other parts of Greece and beyond. Several ecotourism projects have been set up, with the ecotourism centre of Dadia as the successful forerunner. Ecotourism – that means you – is one of the trump cards of nature conservation in the region, both in Greece and Bulgaria. It gives value to nature, economically by generating income for the local communities and ethically and culturally by showing that nature has an intrinsic value – a value that is great enough to draw visitors from all over Europe to the region. On page 224 you can see what you can do to support conservation of the area.

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59 The Bulgarian Society for the Protection of Birds (BSPB) has several programs to preserve the threatened Egyptian Vulture in the Rhodopes. The highest concentration of this beautiful bird is in the Madzharovo region.


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The ARK’s foundation’s philosophy in a Nutshell: without natural or traditional grazing, the Eastern Rhodopes turn into a wild woodland (top). Although beautiful, it cannot sustain many of the valuable species typical of the Eastern Rhodopes. Low intensity grazing by free-roaming animals like deer, horses and cattle, sustains an open landscape with a much higher biodiversity (bottom).

A new future for the Rhodopes? Of all the major problems that nature in Europe is facing, the change in agriculture has to be the one with most far-reaching consequences. The traditional and nature-rich countryside that was once so common throughout the continent is developing in two opposite directions, both of which are equally disastrous. On productive soils, intensified use of chemicals, fertilizers and more effective drainage has impoverished the countryside naturewise. On less favourable soils, economic activity is becoming less viable, hence agriculture is being abandoned altogether. In our area, the first trend is visible on the rich soils of the plains, whereas the abandonment of the land is changing the mountainous areas. The Eastern Rhodopes is now one of the poorest regions of Bulgaria, one where young people leave to find work elsewhere, and where the land that was ploughed and worked, perhaps since the Ancient Thracian tribes settled here, is gradually turning to scrub. The Dutch ARK foundation and the Avalon foundation have launched a project to counteract these problems: the New Thracian Gold project. This Bulgarian-Dutch initiative aims for a sustainable development of the region, based on three inter-related pillars: organic farming, ecotourism and the concept of a wilderness. The broad umbrella of ‘organic farming’ – basically a continuation of traditional farming methods – focuses on not only the marketing of local products, but also the preservation of local customs, traditions, land uses of the

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Eastern Rhodopes. This also includes schemes to preserve indigenous animal breeds, in particular the Rhodope Short-horn Cattle and the Karakachan Horse. Ecotourism more or less speaks for itself – the stunning biodiversity is ideal for nature tourism. The third pillar, wilderness, is perhaps, at first glance, a bit of an odd one out. According to ARK, preserving the more open landscapes of an entire region solely by encouraging organic farming is not realistic. As an alternative, ARK aims to restore the herds of large grazing herbivores in remote corners of the region by reintroducing wild animals like Red Deer and domestic breeds like Konik Horses which resemble the wild Tarpan that went extinct in 1875. These wild, free-roaming animals keep the landscape fairly open, hence preserving the patches of steppe grasslands and open woods that are now gradually filling up with bushes. In turn, this will have a positive impact on ecotourism, not only due to the possibility of seeing the animals themselves, but also for watching the wolves, bears and jackals and scavenging vultures that will inevitably follow in their wake… The game reserve of Studen Kaldenets (route 2) gives an idea of the Rhodopes according to the view of ARK. ARK’s rewilding philosophy follows the African and North American approach to nature conservation. It is sometimes criticized because the presumed role of large herbivores in the European wilderness is debated. The effect they have on the landscape is a hypothesis, rather than a well-established theory. And since not all land owners share the wilderness view, the grazing project is not (yet) possible across the entire Rhodopes Nevertheless, it is clear that the current situation is undesirable, as more and more of the unique character of the Rhodopes disappears underneath the shrubs that grow taller year by year… More information on www.newthraciangold.eu and www.ark.eu.

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Free-roaming animals in the wild: the Koniks (locally known as Tarpans) near the village of Sbor.


flora and fauna

The flora and fauna of the Eastern Rhodopes and North-east Greece is one big, fascinating cabinet of natural curiosities, comprising many species unfamiliar to most Europeans. There are, of course, the pelicans, eagles and vultures for which the area is famous, but you can also come across subterranean worm-like lizards, curiously shaped orchids, swamp-dwelling jackals, dwarf irises, paradisiac lilies, giant Dragon Arums, ten centimetre long predatory bush crickets and a myriad of other strange insects. If the oddities of this part of the world were presented in a single catalogue, youâ&#x20AC;&#x2122;d be amazed by such diversity of life in such a small area. There is no single reason explaining this abundance, but the varied topography certainly is one positive contributor. On the one hand there are rugged mountains with large forests and cliffs of an overall impenetrable and wild character and on the other there are open coastal plains. These consist of fertile soils that support numerous different species providing prey for the many raptors. The wide range of habitats, from fresh and salt water marshes, scrubland, various types of forest and agricultural land, offer a home to a wide variety of species. Another important factor that positively influences the natural diversity of the region is its position in the contact zone of several major biological regions. The Rhodope Mountains support plants and animals that are well-known throughout central Europe (like Beech and Fire Salamanders for example), but, if you look carefully, youâ&#x20AC;&#x2122;ll find many other species that are unique to the Balkan countries. The flora and

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The Eastern Rhodopes and Dadia are the stronghold of vultures in south-eastern Europe. It is here that you find the highest numbers of Black, Griffon (here on photo) and Egyptian Vultures.


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In the eastern Rhodopes, various biogeographical regions meet. It is here that you can find together the Red-back Shrike of central Europe (top), the LesserGrey Shrike of eastern Europe (second), the Woodchat Shrike of southern Europe (third) and the Masked Shrike of southeastern Europe.

insect fauna particularly contain many Balkan species (such as Bulgarian Emerald and Rhodope Lily). The coastline, in contrast, is dominated by Mediterranean plants and animals, such as Dragon Arum and Kotschy’s Gecko. Many of them reach further up into the Rhodopes as well (e.g. Pink Butterfly Orchid and Eastern Olivaceous Warbler, to name but two common species). Among these Mediterranean species are several distinctly eastern ones, which just reach this region. Examples are highlights like Spur-winged Plover, Sand Boa and Spurred Helleborine. And then there is the Pontic element – species proper to the steppes and steppe woodlands of the Black Sea region and further east. The ‘Pontics’ are the cherry on an already pretty well decorated cake, and include the likes of Suslik, Isabelline Wheatear, Levant Sparrowhawk, and both pelicans. Time to dig in!

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Temperate European Yellow-bellied Toad Bombina variegata Brooks, pools

Pontic Suslik Spermophilus citellus Steppes

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Temperate European region Pontic region

Rhodopes

Mediterranean region East Mediterranean region

East Mediterranean Dragon Arum Dracunculus vulgaris Waste places

Mediterranean Montpellier snake Malpolon monspessulanus Scrub

Rhodopes Endemic Bulgarian Emerald Somatochlora borisii Shady streams

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Birds of steppes and agricultural land Long-legged Buzzard, Common (Steppe) Buzzard, Booted Eagle, Short-toed Eagle, Lesser Kestrel (rare), Red-footed Falcon (migrant), Quail, Stone Curlew, Great Spotted Cuckoo (very rare), Northern Wheatear, Isabelline Wheatear, Calandra Lark, Short-toed Lark (rare in Evros delta), Crested Lark, Blackheaded Bunting, Black-headed Wagtail, Lesser Grey Shrike

Birds in winter

On a crisp and cold winter morning in the Evros Delta (don’t for a minute think that because you are close to the Mediterranean, it will be warm!) you may easily come to the conclusion that winter is the best season for birdwatching. Big flocks of Dalmatian Pelicans gracefully glide by, tens of Pygmy Cormorants huddle together, surrounded by several dozens of Great White Egrets, Moustached Warblers and Water Rails skulk the edge of the reedbeds, in which several bright blue Kingfishers scout the water for fish. Ducks of all sorts are present by the thousands, but you will be surprised how many more there actually are, when they all fly up when a Spotted or White-tailed Eagle passes by. Or both. Or several of them. This account of the winter in the Evros Delta is, perhaps, slightly generous, but not much exaggerated. Besides, it doesn’t even include the possibility of finding rare wintering birds like Lesser White-fronted Goose, Red-breasted Goose or Bewick’s Swan. Glance on the map of Europe and you’ll see how much land lies to the north of the Thracian Plain. All of it will be in winter’s icy grip for several months. The large deltas of the Evros, Nestos and the Thracian lagoons will be the closest ice-free and food-rich areas of any size (particularly in harsh winters when the Black Sea coast is frozen stiff). No wonder so many birds come to winter at the coast of North-east Greece. Ducks, Geese and Swans are important winter species here, but so are Bitterns, Cormorants (both Great and Pygmy), Dalmatian Pelicans, Spoonbills, Greater Flamingos, Kingfishers, Water Rails. The Evros Delta in particular is of huge importance to them. Mute Swans winter here in large numbers, joined by smaller flocks of Whooper and Bewick’s Swans in Evros. The latter is the least common of the three. Geese also spend the winter in Evros. The relatively small area of natural meadows in the southern part of the delta attract several thousands of White-fronted Geese. From late December, they are joined

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by the extremely rare and endangered Lesser White-fronted Goose. This breeding bird of Lapland has a very strange migration route: if breeding was successful, they fly through central Europe, visiting Hortobagy National Park in Hungary before reaching Northern Greece. The birds that failed to breed fly in summer eastwards to northern Russia

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Winters can be quite harsh in the Rhodope mountains, which allows for unexpected views of the Griffon Vultures in the snow

then through Kazakhstan, via the Ukraine to Lake Kerkini, where they rest for a while, before continuing to Evros to winter. Nearly the entire Scandinavian population (only little more than 100 birds) is thought to spend the winter here. Numbers are declining sharply due to habitat destruction and hunting. Although the Lesser White-fronted Goose is protected, it is very similar to the White-fronted Goose, which is a legal quarry. During cold winters, when the feeding grounds at the Black Sea coast in Romania and Bulgaria freeze over, Evros is visited by up to several

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thousands of Red-breasted Geese. The flocks are a spectacular sight. In other winters, however, there are few or none. All these birds attract predators, especially White-tailed and Spotted Eagles which are downright common in winter. They spend the night in the forested hills of Dadia, and come down to the delta to hunt. The lowland fields are full of thrushes, buntings, sparrows and pigeons, but life in the snowy mountains (yes, there is usually snow during the winter, and not infrequently it comes all the way down to Dadia) is considerably quieter. The vulture feeding stations are good places to visit though. Griffon and Black Vultures are often joined by a Golden, Spotted or White-tailed Eagle. And seeing such majestic birds in the snow is something quite special. Otherwise, walks through the mountains are quiet until, every now and then you find yourself in the midst of a noisy, roving flock of birds, which like a band of robbers, moves through the forest consuming all in their path. They contain the usual mix of tits, finches, Bramblings or Siskins, but may be joined by a Sombre Tit, Lesser Spotted Woodpecker or Cirl Bunting. They give such a group an extra dimension that makes birding here so attractively different from back home! Winter birds Winter visitors and birds that peak in winter Black-throated Diver (rare), Black-necked Grebe Great-crested Grebe, Dalmatian Pelican, Cormorant, Pygmy Cormorant, Bittern, Great White Egret, Spoonbill, Bewick’s Swan, Whooper Swan, White-fronted Goose, Lesser White-fronted Goose, Redbreasted Goose, Greylag Goose, Pintail, Shoveler, Wigeon, Teal, Pochard, Red-crested Pochard (rare), Tufted Duck, White-headed Duck (very rare), White-tailed Eagle, Spotted Eagle, Eastern Imperial Eagle, Hen Harrier, Water Rail, Avocet, Grey Plover, Lapwing, Sanderling, Dunlin, Green Sandpiper, Redshank, Spotted Redshank, Curlew, Woodcock, Snipe, Jack Snipe, Little Gull, Sandwich Tern, Water Pipit, Meadow Pipit, Redwing, Song Thrush, Mistle Thrush, Fieldfare, Moustached Warbler, Bearded Tit, Penduline Tit, Brambling, Siskin, Reed Bunting Residents also present in winter Greater Flamingo, Shelduck, Griffon Vulture, Black Vulture, Golden Eagle, Marsh Harrier, Peregrine, Chukar, Mediterranean Gull, Black Woodpecker, Lesser Spotted Woodpecker, Middle Spotted Woodpecker, Syrian Woodpecker, Black Redstart, Blue Rock Thrush, Cetti’s Warbler, Firecrest, Sombre Tit, Western Rock Nuthatch, Raven, Cirl Bunting, Rock Bunting

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reptiles and amphibians

Reptiles and amphibians All routes are good for finding reptiles. The many species that occur in stony grasslands, scrub and light forests, are particularly abundant on routes 3, 4, 6, 7,8, 10, 12, 15, 17 and 18. Some routes stick out, such as route 7 (good for Javalin Sand Boa and both Tortoises), route 8 (Grass Snake, Dahl’s Whip Snake, various lizards, Slow Worm), route 9 (Balkan Wall Lizard, Grass and Dice Snakes), route 10 (various snakes, particularly Grass Snake, terrapins, tortoises), route 12 (Aesculapian Snake, Nose-horned Viper, European Pond Terrapin, Tortoises), 15 (snakes, tortoises) and the best is 18 (both terrapins, both tortoises, most snakes, Kotschy’s Gecko).

The Eastern Rhodopes boasts, together with the coastal plain of Greece, the highest diversity of reptiles and amphibians in the whole of Europe. A total of 15 amphibians and no less than 30 species of reptiles are known in this region. The combination of (sub-) Mediterranean and more temperate conditions within the region suit a wide array of species. From an ecological perspective, the large areas of intact habitat provide plenty of both prey and shelter, thus forming optimal conditions for reptiles and amphibians. The richest areas are the open forest and traditional farmland found in the foothills and river valleys in the Eastern Rhodopes. This bit-of-everything habitat provides shelter under stones and bushes, sunny spots to warm up and shade to cool down.

Tortoises and Terrapins

Without a doubt, at least in our minds, the greatest herpetological attraction of the Eastern Rhodopes are the large numbers of tortoises, or ‘land turtles’ (see also box on page 91). Few visitors of North-east Greece are unmoved by the disarming and all-too-human gaze of the tortoises. These easy-does-it vegetarian fellows really are a joy to watch. As with Blackbirds in a British hedgerow, the rustle of leaflitter in a woodland is a sure sign there is tortoise around. If you sit down quietly under a bush, it is not exceptional to hear several of them blundering around you. And in the mating period in spring (April-May) you may be surprised to hear that they are capable of making a whole array of other sounds, matrimoanial noises that are comically close to those produced in human bedrooms… Two species of tortoises occur in the region and both are common: Hermann’s and Spur-thighed Tortoise. Both species are found in a variety of habitats, including dry and open woodland, scrub and arable land. The

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Identifying tortoises and terrapins

species can be separated in the field by the absence (Hermann’s) or presence (Spur-thighed) of a spur on the thighs, particularly on the hind legs (see box below). Water turtles – terrapins – are frequent as well, albeit more difficult to observe because they are quite shy. There are two species in the region. The European Pond Terrapin is common in nearly all types of freshwater. The Balkan Terrapin seems to prefer smaller ponds, ditches and slow flowing rivers, which are often quite dirty. These habitat preferences are not very strict though, and both species often coexist. Tortoises (land-dwelling)

Hermann’s 1 - tail carapace scale usually divided 2 - no spurs on thighs 3 - tip of tail pointy, with large scale Spur-thighed 1 - tail carapace scale undivided 2 - spurs on thighs 3 - rounded tail, no scale The terrapins differ in neck colouration: European Pond Terrapin is spotted, while Balkan Terrapin is striped.

1 2 3 Hermann’s Tortoise Testudo hermanni

Spur-thighed Tortoise Testudo graeca

Terrapins (in freshwater)

European Pond Terrapin Emys orbicularis

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Balkan Terrapin Mauremys rivulata

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Lizards

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Any walk through arable land, rocky sites, warm open woodlands, scrublands will reveal at least a few lizards. Without doubt, the most frequently encountered reptile in all types of habitats throughout the region is Green Lizard. The bright-blue coloured throat of the males, makes them easily distinguishable from Three-lined Lizard, the other common big green coloured lizard in the region (up to 40 cm). Both are good climbers and can often be seen rushing up a bush or tree. Although there is an overlap in these two species’ habitats, the Three-lined Lizard prefers more open, dry and hot terrain than the Green Lizard. It shares this habitat with the big and curious European Glass Lizard (page 37). The legless Glass Lizard has an impressive, to some perhaps even vicious appearance, but is completely harmless. Like a big Eel, it slithers through dry grasslands, arable land and old stone walls. Some specimens measure up to a metre and are as thick as a man’s wrist. Like most reptiles, it loves to bask in the sun and often seeks out a sunny road. However, it does not have the agility of snakes because it lacks the ability to move its belly scales, which enables snakes to slither over smooth surfaces. The Glass Lizard, by contrast needs vertical intrusions like rocks or vegetation to push itself forward. This is why you will find European Glass Lizards become ‘road kill’ more often than snakes (although the recent dramatic increase in petrol prices brings seems to have a positive effect on the number of reptilian casualties). The region is host to a confusing array of small lizards, but since they all seem to prefer a slightly different habitat, not all is lost for those who want to identify them. Probably most difficult to tell apart are the three species of wall lizards: Common, Erhard’s and Balkan Wall Lizard. Common Wall Lizard is restricted to rocky and forested terrain in the

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Drinking troughs are vital sources of water during the hot summer months. This Threelined Lizard comes in to drink, while aquatic reptiles and amphibians like Dice Snakes and Yellow-bellied Toads sometimes depend on them for survival.


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The Green Lizard is the most common lizard in the forests of the Rhodopes.

medium to high elevation, preferring semi-humid habitat. Its look-alike the Erhard’s Wall Lizard, in contrast, is mainly a lowland species of dry, rocky terrain with low, dense vegetation. Balkan Wall Lizard, with its distinctive plain and green back, is restricted to grassy, level sites, and is therefore mostly found in lowland regions (the ‘Wall’ in the name is not at all applicable to its choice of habitats!). In the lower eastern part of the Eastern Rhodopes and the coastal plains, the small, brightly coloured Snake-eyed Lizard is found (page 174). This lowland species of open scrub and stony hillsides is named after its staring snake-like eyes, a result of the lack of eyelids. When disturbed, these lizards run at an impressive speed from cover to cover and then pop up to stare at the intruder. The tiny Snake-eyed Skink lacks eyelids too. It is found in dry forests with much leaf litter in which to hide. It can reach high densities (particularly in Dadia) and if you rummage carefully through the leaf layer in a sunny spot, you are likely to encounter one. Or, maybe, one of its bigger cousins, the familiar Slow Worm, which is quite common in wooded areas. Geckos, a group of charismatic nocturnal lizards that originate from tropical Africa, are represented in the region by two species. The most widespread is Kotschy’s Gecko, which you will find clambering the walls of houses in the evenings. The Turkish Gecko is only present in the coastal area, and is decidedly rare (in fact, we never found it here).

Snakes

The warm open woodlands and the stony scrublands in the hills and lowlands are exciting territories if you like snakes. There are few areas in Europe, if any, which have such a diversity of snakes. And although they are always elusive, our visits here yielded more encounters than in any other place in Europe, with the exception perhaps of some places in Greece. A widespread and abundant snake in the whole region is the Caspian

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Whip Snake, mostly due to its low ecological demands for specific habitats and food resource. This large snake (up to 2 m!) is known to bask on roads and, unfortunately, it is often killed by traffic. Another big snake you may encounter throughout the region is Montpellier Snake, easily recognizable by its characteristic V-shaped fold between the large eyes. With some luck, you may stumble upon the beautiful and agile Dahlâ&#x20AC;&#x2122;s Whip Snake in stony places, abandoned villages, dry scrub land or borders of forests. The elusive Sand Boa is the only boa species in Europe, killing by wrapping itself around its prey, mainly rodents, and crushing by contracting its strong muscles. Despite its exotic name, it is a relatively small snake, up to 80 cms long, which spends most of its life in rodent burrows. Another strange sub-Mediterranean creature is the tiny Worm Snake. It looks like a shiny earth worm with which it shares many characteristics, including the fact that it lives nearly its entire life in self-made burrows underground. Nose-horned and Ottomanâ&#x20AC;&#x2122;s Vipers are the only dangerous snakes in the area, because of their highly potent venom. The rare Ottoman Viper (known only from the lowlands east of

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Two stunning species of snakes you might just find if you are lucky: the Nose-horned Viper (top) and Sand Boa (bottom).

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You can find Yellowbellied Toads in most puddles of water. In spring you may even see the males wrestle for the females.

Alexandroupoli) is even considered to be the most venomous snake in Europe. But the risk of a harmful encounter with a viper should not be overstated – even if you are actively in search of them, a rendezvous with these secretive animals is a rare event. Much easier to find are the two aquatic snakes in the region, the Dice Snake and the Grass Snake. Both are common species of marshes, streams and river valleys, but the first is more dependent on water. Finally, the forests in the region hold a few snakes of their own. Particularly woodland with open patches where sunlight pours in, sees high densities of snakes. The species to be expected here are Aesculapian Snake and Smooth Snake – two species with a wide distribution in Europe.

Amphibians

The amphibians are represented by fewer species. A total of 11 species of amphibians are known to occur in the Bulgarian Eastern Rhodopes, out of the 18 species known to occur in Bulgaria. Out of the 18 amphibian species found in mainland Greece, a total of 15 occur on the Thracian coastal plain, Evros, Nestos and Dadia together. Throughout the region, most widespread amphibians are Marsh Frog, Tree Frog, Smooth Newt, Green and Common Toads. The first three species are almost evenly distributed in a range of aquatic habitats, such as ponds, lake shores and streams. In contrast, Green and Common Toads are found in a wider variety of habitats due to their tolerance of drier conditions. Most probably you will stumble on them as you turn stones or when you drive along minor roads on damp evenings. In the Eastern Rhodopes and Dadia region, at higher elevations, species associated with more temperate climate conditions can be found, such as Yellow-bellied Toad, Fire Salamander and Greek and Agile Frogs. The Yellow-bellied Toad is fairly easy to find along routes in hilly areas with shallow, temporary water bodies. In spring, it is rewarding to observe the male’s territorial display, sometimes resulting in toad sumo wrestling (see photo).

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reptiles and amphibians

The beautiful Fire Salamander is remarkably widespread in the small streams in the Eastern Rhodopes. Usually it is associated with streams in moist beech forests. In the few areas where this habitat occurs in the Eastern Rhodopes, the Fire Salamander is indeed common, but it is found in many streams in the region, as long as they do not dry out completely in summer. In contrast, the cold-loving Grass Frog, widespread in Europe, is very rare and found only around the highest peaks. The Eastern Rhodopes form its southeastern distribution limit. The amphibian fauna of the coastal plains, Nestos and Evros differs from the Eastern Rhodopes. In this region there are three species of green frogs. West of the Nestos, a green frog is automatically a Balkan Frog. East of the Nestos, you will encounter only Marsh Frogs, except along the Evros, where Levant Water Frogs occur as well (but they can only be separated from Marsh Frogs by their calls). The very rare Fire-bellied Toad, a close relative of the Yellow-bellied Toad, is present only in the waters of the Evros River. The Eastern Spadefoot is a beautiful species of toad that occurs very locally in brackish and freshwater marsh right at the coast or along riverbanks. Like other spadefoots, it has a habit of digging itself deep in the mud or sandy soil and is therefore not easy to find. It is easiest to find the species by searching for the bulky tadpoles in spring. In the Eastern Rhodopes, its occurrence is probably overlooked in some river valleys like Arda and Byala Reka. During walks along flood plains it is worthwhile to look for them in suitable habitat.

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The beautiful Fire Salamander is not uncommon in the small streams of the Eastern Rhodopes. Look for the tadpoles in the water, or for adults in the forest on a wet spring day.

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reptiles and amphibians

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Species Dadia & eastern Coastal plain, Preferred rhodopes Nestos & Evros habitat Lizards Slow Worm Very local Very local Open woodland with (Anguis fragilis) leaf litter European Glass Lizard Common Common Lowland scrub, (Pseudopus apodus) cultivated area Kotschy’s Gecko Very local Common Houses and walls (Cyrtopodion kotschyi) Turkish Gecko - Very local Houses (Hemidactylus turcicus) Meadow Lizard Very local - Grassy woodlands (Darevskia praticola) (only found in Dadia) Three-lined Lizard Frequent Common Scrub, arable land (Lacerta triliniata) Green Lizard Common Common Open woodland, scrub (Lacerta virides) Erhard’s Wall Lizard Common Common Dry rocky terrain, (Podarcis erhardii) scrub Wall Lizard Frequent - Woodland, rocks (Podarcis muralis) Balkan Wall Lizard Frequent Common Arable land, grassland (Podarcis taurica) Snake-eyed Lizard Rare Frequent Arable land, rocky sites (Ophisops elegans) Snake-eyed Skink Frequent Common Open woodland with (Ablepharus kitaibelii) leaf litter Snakes Smooth Snake Rare Common (Coronella austriaca) (common in Dadia) Caspian Whip Snake Common Common (Dolichophis caspius) Blotched Snake Rare Frequent (Elaphe sauromates) (frequent in Dadia) Montpellier Snake Common Common (Malpolon monspessulanus) Grass Snake Common Common (Natrix natrix) Dice Snake Common Common (Natrix tesselata) Dahl’s Whip Snake Frequent Frequent (Platyceps najadum) Cat Snake Rare Frequent (Telescopus fallax) Aesculapian Snake Frequent Common (Zamenis longissima) Leopard Snake - Very local (Zamenis situla) Nose-horned Viper Frequent Frequent (Vipera ammodytes)

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Woodland, scrub Any terrestrial site, prefers rocks Any site, often near habitation Warm scrub and woodlands Many aquatic habitats Many aquatic habitats Stony terrain, dry scrub Open rocky sites, scrublands Woodlands, riverine forest, scrub Scrub, arable land Arable land, scrub, loose soils

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reptiles and amphibians

Ottoman Viper - Very Rare Scrub, arable land, (Vipera xanthina) (only found in Evros) meadows,loose soils Sand Boa Rare Local Arable land, scrub land, (Eryx jaculus) olive groves loose soils Worm Snake Very local Frequent Deep and soft soils (Typhlops vermicularis) Tortoises and terrapins Hermannâ&#x20AC;&#x2122;s Tortoise Common Common Open woodland, scrub, (Testudo hermanni) arable land Spur-thighed Tortoise Common Common Open woodland, scrub, (Testudo graeca) arable land Balkan Terrapin Common Common Lowland ponds, lakes, (Mauremys rivulata) marshes, estuaries European Pond Terrapin Common Common Lowland ponds, ditches, (Emys orbicularis) slow flowing rivers Frogs and Toads Tree Frog Common Common (Hyla arborea ) Marsh Frog Common Common (Pelophylax ridibundus) (east of Nestos) Balkan Frog - Common (Pelophylax kurtmuelleri) (west of Nestos) Levant Water Frog - Frequent (Pelophylax bedriagae) (only found in Evros) Agile Frog Common - (Rana dalmatina ) Greek Frog Frequent - (Rana graeca ) Grass Frog Rare - (only Greek ER) (Rana temporaria ) Eastern Spadefoot Rare Very local (Pylobates syriaca ) Yellow-bellied Toad Common Rare (Bombina variegata ) Fire-bellied Toad - Rare (Bombina bombina ) (only found in Evros) Common Toad Common Common (Bufo bufo) Green Toad Common Common (Pseudepidalea virides) Salamanders and Newts Fire Salamander Frequent - (Salamandra salamandra) Smooth Newt Common Common (Lissotriton vulgaris) Southern Crested Newt Frequent Frequent (Triturus karelinii)

flora and fauna

Reedbeds, ponds, streams Any water body Any water body Any water body Streams, woodlands Streams with running water, woodlands Moist woodland Muddy and sandy areas, Ponds, streams, temporary water bodies Pools and ponds Throughout Throughout

Moist forest, streams Any type of water Stagnant lowland waters

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insects and other invertebrates

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Insects and other invertebrates Good butterfly routes are 1, 4, 5, 9, 10, 11 and 18. For the flashy butterflies of riverine habitats, head for routes 10, 11 and 12. Dragonflies of the lowland marshes are particularly good on routes 5, 12, 15 and 16 and site A on page 173. For river species, including those specialities as Odalisque, the rare emeralds and Eastern Spectre, try routes 8, 9, 10 and 18, and site D on page 174. Good sites for grasshoppers, wolf spiders and owlflies are 5, 7, 9, 10, 12, 13, 15 and 18 and sites A, B and D on pages 173-174.

Dozens of Silverwashed Fritillaries feast on the flowers of Hemp-agrimony – one of the most important nectar flowers in summer.

In a warm and sunny region, with habitats ranging from bone-dry to permanently inundated, you’d expect a dazzling wealth of insects and invertebrates. And indeed, the diversity is immense. This as-ever-far-tooshort chapter on invertebrates deals with the butterflies, dragonflies and most conspicuous and easily encountered invertebrates of the Eastern Rhodopes and Thracian coastal plain.

Butterflies

Approximately 140 different species of butterflies can be found within the area of this guidebook. Admittedly, this area cannot compete with the top notch areas elsewhere in Greece and Bulgaria, but it is a good place to hone your skills. This is not to say the Eastern Rhodopes don’t offer excellent butterfly habitats. Rather, it underlines the superior diversity of those other regions which have a more diverse soils and reach a much greater height, thereby providing habitats that the Eastern Rhodopes lack. As a result, butterfly ‘watchers’ concentrate more on other, more mountainous, areas of Bulgaria (e.g. Rila and the Western Rhodopes) and Greece (e.g. Olympos, Falakro and the Prespa region). Mountain species can be found further west and at higher altitude in the Rhodopes. In a way, though, this lack of attention is an advantage. In the Eastern Rhodopes and the Greek coastal plain, it is quite possible to find new butterfly hotspots and previously unknown populations. You might even, perhaps, find a new species for the region, as we did in

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eastern rhodopes


insects and other invertebrates

the form of the White-letter Hairstreak which we found when preparing this guidebook. The Eastern Rhodopes host an attractive mix of central European, Mediterranean and typical Balkan species, some of which are highly localised. The richest butterfly haunts, both in numbers and in species, are found in the many flowery patches of the Rhodope mountains. But don’t forget to explore the riverine habitat and the coastal plains where there is a limited number of highly attractive species to be found. The 140-odd butterfly species are on the wing at different periods between March and October. Although there are some autumn (e.g. Lang’s Short-tailed Blue) and spring flying butterflies (e.g. Eastern Festoon), the bulk of them peak between early June and late August. Temperatures often rise to well above 30oC. Most butterflies will then shelter from the heat during the middle of the day, but it is still possible to find some feeding on flowery bushes like bramble. At this time invesSpecial butterflies of the Eastern Rhodopes Eastern Festoon Zerynthia cerisy False Apollo Archon apollinus Krueper’s Small Pieris krueperi White Small Bath White Pontia chloridice Powdered Brimstone Gonepteryx farinosa Grecian Copper Lycaena ottomanus Little Tiger Blue Tarucus balkanica Blue Argus Aricia anteros Two-tailed Pasha Charaxes jasius Balkan Marbled Melanargia larissa White Eastern Rock Hipparchia syriaca Grayling Freyer’s Grayling Hipparchia fatua Russian Heath Coenonympha leander Lattice Brown Kirinia roxelana Sandy Grizzled Pyrgus cinarae Skipper Oriental Marbled Carcharodus Skipper orientalis

Conspicuous and common in agricultural land Turkish species with one undisclosed population Specialist of steep rocky slopes Rare. Dry river beds. Resembles Bath White Difficult to identify. has clear white wing tips. Flies in sheltered places. Usually near scrub, often drinking on bramble Very small, common around Christ’s-thorn Widespread, males with steel blue colour Very rare in Greece, absent in Bulgaria conspicuous Common, bigger and with more white than Marbled White Shares habitat with Woodland Grayling Usually on trees hiding in the shade Local beauty in flowery scrubland Widespread, flies inside bushy terrain. Hides in shade Local, flies fast and low over the surface Widespread,. Has clearly contrasting colours.

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route 7: hike to thracian tombs

Route 7: Hike to Thracian tombs

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full day moderate – strenuous Challenging hike over mountainous terrain and through extensive oak forest Good route for finding reptiles and orchids Habitats: rocky grassland, scrubland, sub-mediterranean oak forest, Hornbeam forest, meadows, arable land Selected species: Sand Boa, Montpellier Snake, Hermann’s Tortoise, Spurthighed Tortoise, Early-purple Orchid, Monkey Orchid, Lady Orchid, Roman Orchid, Pink Butterfly Orchid, Bird’s-nest Orchid, Laxmann’s Bugle, Pontic Fritillary, White-letter Hairstreak, Ortolan Bunting, Levant Sparrowhawk

This route brings you to the Okopa area, which, at an altitude of 750 metres, offers excellent views over Madzharovo and River Arda. Along the way you come across a variety of typical habitats of the Eastern Rhodopes, each with its own attractive species. The flora and reptile fauna are particularly rich. This is a relatively lengthy route. After reaching the Arda riverbank take into account the approximately 5 km walk back to Madzharovo. This route is marked with white-yellow-white-blue lines.

Departure point Madzharovo Ar da

vulture centre

7

6 0

0.5

madzharovo

5

2

Thracian tombs

4

3

1

3 km internet cafe

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Getting there leave your car at the internet café of Madzharovo. Head north-west, after 200 metres, take turn left through the park and continue on a marked dirt road straight uphill. Take the first turn to the right and follow the markings.

eastern rhodopes


route 7: hike to thracian tombs

1

The track leads you through a pleasant landscape with allotments and arable land. Look for Hoopoe, Cirl Bunting and Hawfinch.

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At a junction go left past some concrete basins and follow the dry river bed. The route splits into various tracks which broadly head uphill. Following the route markings carefully. Beyond a little stream, follow the bottom of the valley, signposted ‘Thracian Tombs’. After about 350 metres, where the track bends sharply to the right, follow the small trail straight ahead into the forest (with arrow sign).

2

The track leads through a dense hornbeam forest with high soil humidity. In spring, some interesting forest plants can be found like Primrose and Bird’snest Orchid. Notice the many typical European forest birds, like Chaffinch and Nuthatch.

3

Higher up the forest becomes more open, and is dominated by Downy and Sessile Oaks. Look out for Roman, Lady and Earlypurple Orchids, which grow alongside the trail. In the more open parts, notice the scrub and herbaceous species, like Prickly Juniper, Smoke-tree and Laxmann’s Bugle* (Ajuga laxmannii). Here you find suitable habitat for Hermann’s and Spur-thighed Tortoises and Montpellier Snake. Follow the ridge. Look for the markings of the trail carefully, since the path can be difficult to find. The general direction is uphill.

4

The open area with stony grassland and scrubs offers some interesting birdwatching. Look for Woodchat Shrike, Woodlark and Golden Eagle. Frequently you will hear the distinctive metallic call of the Ortolan

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Laxmann’s Bugle* (Ajuga laxmannii) is a typical species of open, sub-Mediterranean oak forests.


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Bunting. Here we found the elusive Sand Boa (see page 109)! It is quite common around Madzharovo, if rarely seen. If you are not as fortunate as we were, just enjoy the splendid panoramic view over Madzharovo and the trail. Continue the trail over the ridge. After approximately 200 metres, turn left (arrow sign and markings on rock and on a tree). Continue uphill until you arrive at the summit. In spring, smell the wonderful scent of Common Lilac here – something not to miss.

5

Find the Thracian tomb, which entrance is marked by the eyecatching Creeping St. John’s-wort* (Hypericum cerastoides). The grassland is a good spot for butterflies including Clouded Apollo, Eastern Baton Blue, Escher’s Blue and Knapweed Fritillary. Look for Dog’s Mercury, Navelwort and Pontic Fritillary on the northern part of the summit. On the descent you’ll soon notice the habitat changes to old oak forest with big trees. At the junction turn right.

6

The route leads you through continuously changing landscapes. At a large open grassland, turn right towards the Arda river. In spring explore this spot for the elegant Pink Butterfly Orchid. This is a good spot to look for impressive invertebrates like scolopendras and bulky grass-

The hike to Thracian tombs offers some excellent views over a wide array of habitats found around Madzharovo. This is the Eastern Rhodopes at its best.

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route 7: hike to thracian tombs

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hoppers and related insects. The trail continues through a north facing oak forest, where Early-purple Orchid is frequent. After a small basin go left and follow the markings through forest and meadows, to be led gradually down to the river valley.

7

In the forest Monkey and Lady Orchids grow along the trail. Eventually, youâ&#x20AC;&#x2122;ll reach a stream with huge willows and elms. This may be a good spot for White-letter Hairstreak. Around the concrete trough you can find Yellow-bellied Toad, which has taken advantage of this man-made habitat. Pearl-bordered and Weaverâ&#x20AC;&#x2122;s Fritillaries fly over the wet meadows. After a row of Ash trees, the rocky grasslands with the graceful Variegated Iris are good habitat for Sandy Grizzled Skipper and Knapweed Fritillary. Look also for Red-backed Shrike and Woodlark, but be careful not to trip over a tortoise. They are common here. When you arrive at the Arda river (take a very refreshing dip on a hot day!), turn right and walk back the 5 km dirt track back to Madzharovo. Stop every now and then to look for Black Storks, Levant Sparrowhawk and Little Ringed Plover at the river. The local breed of cattle, the Rhodope Short-horn, frequently cools off in the river on hot days.

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En route, a so-called Sarapan (large rock basin made by the Thracians), can be seen. It was probably used for the processing of grapes and production of wine. Sarapans are associated with the cult to the god Dionysos.

Sandy Grizzled Skipper is frequent in rocky grasslands in the Eastern Rhodopes.


additional things to do in the madhzarovo region

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Additional things to do in the Madhzarovo region A – Madzharovo town

This spectacular species of Twin Spot is one of the peculiar moths that is attracted by the lights on the terrace of the Vulture Centre. Search the vegetation around the terrace carefully in the morning and you’ll find many striking moth species.

The small town of Madzharovo is worth a look. It is situated in an old volcano crater (marked by a circle of hills and to the west and cliffs to the east). The picturesque fields and woodlands, the mountains behind them and, to the north, beautiful river Arda, give the town a picture perfect setting. However, the landscape could not be more at odds with the drab, derelict, communist era housing of Madzharovo itself. The town was built to house the workers of the zinc and lead mines. The cheap functional flats, in typical communist style, were largely abandoned when the mines closed in the early 90’s. Now only around 600 people live in Madzharovo, which leaves roughly 80% of the apartments abandoned. This perhaps sounds depressing, but the stunning surroundings, small size of the town and the wealth of wildlife that has moved in after the people left, make Madzharovo a curious, rather than a sad place. Looseflowered Orchids flower in the abandoned soccer fields. In the evening, Scops Owls are simply everywhere (and quite easy to see on the electricity wires) and even Wolves have been spotted nearby.

B – Gorno Pole and surroundings

Just north of Madzharovo lies, on top of a hill, the rural village of Gorno Pole. This is the location of one of the better nature-oriented bed-andbreakfasts, but even if you don’t want to stay here, Gorno Pole is worth a visit. The views over the Arda bend are beautiful, especially if you find your way through the half-open woodlands and scrub to the eastern edge of the hill. And should you get confused in finding the right trail over (which happens easily here), don’t worry. You probably end up in a great place anyway, because the half open landscape here has plenty of wildflowers and butterflies (Clouded Apollos are very common here) and a good range of scrubland birds, such as Eastern Orphean, Olivaceous, Sardinian and Subalpine Warblers, and Ortolan Buntings. Don’t forget to visit the reed fringed pools near the B&B for the odd migrant birds. A bird hide is also being constructed in 2013. Ask the B&B for its location.

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eastern rhodopes


routes in the kirkovo region

Routes in the Kirkovo region The sparsely populated Kirkovo region, deep drangovo in the mountains at the westernmost corner of the Eastern Rhodopes, is clothed in forest. The steep, forested mountains form a sharp contrast with the gentle meadows and farmland in the valley. No doubt, exploring this highgorno kapinovo est area of the Eastern Rhodopes is one of the 8 main attractions of the region. B The impressive mountain ridge, part of the 0 5 km Gyumyurdzhinski Snezhnik protected site, consists of a hard bedrock, and is home to many rare and endangered plants and animals not found in other parts of the Eastern Rhodopes. The colder and wetter local climate is reflected by flora and fauna which is more akin to that further north and west in Europe. Yet mixed with them are those species that are unique to the Balkan mountains. A spectacular feature of the site is the old growth beech forest which is of great ecological significance. We selected a spectacular route (route 8) along the mountain ridge in the former restricted military zone. This trail, along the border area with Greece, will lead you to remote peaks with stunning views over the mountains, all the way down to the Aegean Sea.

krilatitsa

kirkovo

A

shumnatitsa

Overview of the Kirkovo region, with the position of the routes. The letters refer to the sites on page 164.

The fields in the Kirkovo region are rich in colourful â&#x20AC;&#x2DC;arable weedsâ&#x20AC;&#x2122;.

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route 8: the border trail

Route 8: The border trail

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!

Drive carefully on the track towards the military station. Be sure to take your passport or EU identity card.

An old piece of barbed wire in the beech wood reminds of the time that this was the iron curtain between the communist east and the capitalist west. This area was long off-limits for people, which is why these forests are in such a pristine state.

full day – strenuous Hike to a primeval mountain beech forest and mountain pastures Superb views over the Thracian coastal plain and Aegean sea, Thasos and Porto Lagos Splendid spring flora Habitats: Beech forest, mixed Oak forest, forest streams, rocky mountain grassland Selected species: Rhodope Lily, Rhodopean Toothwort, Dog’s-tooth Lily, Elder-flowered Orchid, Reichenbach’s Iris*, Wolf, Semi-collared Flycatcher, Lesser Spotted Eagle, Lanner Falcon, Black Woodpecker, White-backed Woodpecker, Fire Salamander, Slow Worm, Erhard’s Wall Lizard, Dahl’s Whip Snake, Odalisque, White-letter Hairstreak

During the cold war, the border area between Greece and Bulgaria was off-limits. This helped to preserve the forest in a (near) natural state. The high, north facing Bulgarian side, has an old-growth beech forest, part of the Gyumyurdzhinski Snezhnik protected site. The Western Rhodopes have larger areas with old-growth beech forest, but this is the only forest of its kind in the Eastern Rhodopes. This route crosses the reserve, which is a refuge to a rare and threatened wildlife and a spectacular flora of rocky grasslands. The latter is found on the ridge which forms the border of Bulgaria and Greece, which is stripped of forest. From up here you have superb views to the Aegean coast. During this hike you have a good chance of meeting friendly shepherds from either country.

Departure point Gorno Kapinovo Getting there Drive up to the end of the village of Gorno Kapinovo and continue carefully to the military station, park your car here. Continue of foot.Follow the track for 4 km up the mountain to the refuge.

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eastern rhodopes


route 8: the border trail

gorno kapinovo

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military station

1 2 refuge short, steep trail

3 long, less demanding trail

B

5 0

1

B

= site B on page 164

4

3 km

1

Due to human impact, the forest along this stretch consists mainly of degraded forest. Nonetheless, in the bends of the track you will find small wet meadows with dragonflies including Blue-eyed Hawker and Small Pincertail. On the rocky fields along this stretch we found Dahlâ&#x20AC;&#x2122;s Whip Snake, together with both tortoises, and the very common Wall and Green Lizards.

2

From the refuge (which is also the starting point of the trip to the old-growth forest; site B on page 164) follow the trail on the left side of the artificial lake. In summer, butterflies are abundant on the flowering plants along the shore, while the undergrowth and scattered small

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Massive old Beech tree along the border trail. This ecological features of pristine mountain beech forest are clearly visible on this tree: it is old, gnarled and with lots of damaged branches.


route 8: the border trail

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puddles is good habitat for Grass Snake and Yellow-bellied Toad. From the small lake, next to the wooden fence, follow the signposted trail (marked white-green-white) towards the mountain ridge.

3 The endemic Rhodope Lily is found in beech forests of the Western and Eastern Rhodopes.

In spring, Wild Tulips are frequent on the rocky grasslands of the border trail.

This section of mixed forest is not very old, probably cut and replanted about 50 years ago. This does not limit the very rich spring flora, including Hollow-root, Coralroot, Yellow Anemone, and several species of yellow Stars-of-Bethlehem. During the strenuous walk onto the steep slope, take time to look for Slow Worm, Fire Salamander and Erhard’s Wall Lizard. Keep your eyes open for Black and White-backed Woodpeckers, and search the area for the Semicollared Flycatcher for which it is promising habitat. During migration, other flycatcher species may well be found here too.

4

The open mountain ridge, which forms the Greek border, appears quite suddenly. On clear days, the view over the Aegean coast is breathtaking. Test your geographic skills and find Vistonida Lake, Porto Lagos and the island of Thasos. Due to the establishment of a military zone this was a cleared strip for decades, creating a mountain pasture, which transformed into a haven for interesting spring wildflowers, in particular species of the lily family. Look for Wild Tulip, Drooping Starof-Bethlehem, Reichenbach’s Iris* (Iris reichenbachii) and Elder-flowered Orchid. The early flowering Dog’stooth Lily is generally rare and localised, but here you find it everywhere! In summer, scan the abundant thyme for butterflies including Silver-studded Blue, Brown Argus, Baton Blue and Sloe Hairstreak.

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The border trail, with Bulgaria to the left and Greece to the east. The Bulgarian north slope is clad in old-growth beech forest.

Follow the signposted trail along the ridge towards the Veykata peak for about 2 1/2 hours. The trail bypasses the small peaks on Bulgarian territory, but generally stays on the ridge.

5

Along the trail you have a chance of spotting Lesser Spotted Eagle, Lanner Falcon, Griffon and Black Vultures. In June and July, on the flanks of the Tri Kladentsi and Veykata peak look for the endemic Rhodope Lily in addition to the widespread Martagon Lily in the open forests just off track. From the Veykata peak retrace your steps and return to the refuge and Gorno Kapinovo. You can choose to take the longer, less demanding trail or return by the same route. To take the longer one, just go further down at the split and follow the white-red markings until you reach the track (see map).

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The slender Dahlâ&#x20AC;&#x2122;s Whip Snake is found in dry grasslands, along forest edges and open woodlands.


route 13: porto lagos and lake vistonida

Route 13: Porto Lagos and Lake Vistonida

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4 hours 23 km

Stop-n-go route along the best spots of the Thracian lagoons Great birdwatching, but also places with a great flora, insect and reptile life Habitats: Coastal lagoons, fresh and brackish water wetlands Selected species: Pink Butterfly Orchid, Fragrant Bug Orchid, Stone Curlew, Slender-billed Gull, Greater Flamingo, Yelkouan Shearwater, Nose-horned Viper, Little Tiger Blue

This route links the best sites along the Vistonida lagoon. Most spots are primarily of birding interest, but stop 7 explores a lightly wooded hillside with beautiful wildflowers, tortoises, and butterflies. The views of the large lagoons with the mountains in the background are unforgettable. Winter is, in general, the best period for birdwatching here. Be aware that although the list of bird species seen in this region is very high, birds can be spread remarkably thin over what appears to be excellent habitat. Particularly in spring, we advise not to linger too long at sites that appear to hold no birds – the next site may be much better.

Departure point Fanári

2 nea kessani

Map on page 186

Map on page 186

porto lagos

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7

1

3 2

4

2

Aegean Sea

8 0

1

Lake Vistonida

5

2

3 km

fanari

Leave Fanári in northern direction.

1

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Watching over sea from the little boulevard of Fanari can be productive. We saw hundreds of Yelkouan Shearwaters, various terns and gulls, Shag and Gannet in May, but very little in winter.

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route 13: porto lagos and lake vistonida

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Porto Lagos monastery, picturesquely situated in the marshes.

2

The salt marsh on your left support Little Egrets, Shelduck, Blackwinged Stilts and other waders in search of food in spring. Collared Pratincoles are sometimes seen here. During migration, any kind of wader may appear, so scan these marshes carefully. At the crossing, turn left to Porto Lagos. Park at the car park of the Porto Lagos monastery.

3

The Porto Lagos monastery dating from Byzantine times is surrounded by marshes. The monastery, picturesquely situated on two small islands in the marsh, can be visited in mornings and evenings. For birdwatching, this area is most interesting in winter, when the reeds and the lagoons host Pygmy and Great Cormorants, Night Heron, Little Egret, Little Bittern, Cettiâ&#x20AC;&#x2122;s, Moustached and Great Reed Warblers, Kingfishers, a variety of ducks, Spoonbill, Greater Flamingos and Dalmatian Pelicans. In spring, Great Crested Lake Vistonida Grebe, Marsh Harrier and Mediterranean Gull p are the most reliably seen species. A good way to explore this site in winter, is to walk monastery back some 800 metres along the main road and then turn right along an old track (see inset map). This enables you to explore more of the reedbed habitat than just the patches along the busy road.

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route 13: porto lagos and lake vistonida

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Continue through the village of Lagos.

4

At the western end lies the information centre of the Thracian Lagoons National Park, with an exhibition of the landscape, flora and fauna of the area. In front of it there’s a small pinewood and a pretty patch of dunes. During migration periods, the pinewood often holds large numbers of passerines (songbirds).

In winter, Dalmatian Pelicans are regulary seen in the Vistonida marshes. They are present year-round, but in lesser numbers in spring, when they breed in the marshes of Kerkini and Prespa.

5

Further on the main road there is a coastal lagoon, which is often without birds. However when water levels are right, it can be excellent for waders and since you pass it anyway, it doesn’t hurt to check.

6

Just over the hill, turn left onto a dirt track that rounds some salt pans (see small map). This track p passes some dry fields (keep an eye out for Calandra Lark, Tawny Pipit and Stone Curlew) before it passes a salt dam through a lagoon that is used for salt production. pans This is one of the best sites in northeast Greece for Greater Flamingo, Slender-billed Gull and migrating waders, including Dunlin, Grey Plover, Greenshank, Redshank, Spotted Redshank, Curlew Sandpiper, and, with luck, the odd Red-necked Phalarope or Broad-billed Sandpiper. 2

Continue to the other side where the dirt track winds back and ends at a tarmac road. Turn left here and drive on for 5 km. Turn left onto a dirt track signposted Ixuyotrofeio Lafraς. Cross the little stream and park on the left hill side of the road (see inset map).

7

This hill has a distinctly Mediterranean flora and fauna and is an excellent site for a stroll. The view from the top over the lagoons is beautiful, particularly in April, when you are up to your ankles

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du

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route 13: porto lagos and lake vistonida

in tens of thousands of Pink Butterfly Orchids. They flower together with thousands of Three-toothed Orchids (and a few hybrids of the two), and some Green-winged and Mammose Orchids. In May, Long-lipped Tongue Orchids are frequent. Little Tiger Blue is a frequent butterfly. This area is also of interest for its reptiles. We found Spur-thighed and Hermann’s Tortoises and Three-lined Lizards, European Glass Lizard and the beautiful, but highly poisonous, Nose-horned Viper. On the south side of the hill during a few days in May, you may witness the extraordinary phenomenon of thousands of tiny, recently emerged, Green Toads swarming down from the hill to the coastal lagoons. In the Netherlands such events are aptly called ‘toad rain’.

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Long-nosed Grasshoppers are common in all dry habitats in summer and autumn.

8

Continue on foot or by car to the dunes and the coastal lagoons further south. Along the track in the dune area there are a few Marsh and Fragrant Bug Orchids. The salt marshes are interesting for waders, Slender-billed Gulls and other species of the North-Greek coastal lagoons.

The views over the coastal lagoons from the hillside of stop 7. On a fine spring day, this site alone has enough to offer to keep occupied an entire day.

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route 14: lake ismarida and ptelia lagoon

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Route 14: Lake Ismarida and Ptelia Lagoon 4 - 5 hours 34 km Coastal lagoons and reed-fringed lagoon of great importance for birds Habitats: freshwater wetlands, reedbeds, coastal lagoons, dunes, and agriculture land Selected species: Small-headed Blue Eryngo, Cottonweed, Yelkouan Shearwater, Glossy Ibis, White-headed Duck, Bee-eater, Roller, Lesser Kestrel, Greater Flamingo, Slender-billed Gull, Balkan Wall Lizard, Nose-horned Grasshopper, Praying Mantis

This route connects two completely different but highly interesting wetlands, which are only 3 km apart. The first, Ismarida lake is a shallow, reed-fringed freshwater lake, famous for being the last natural freshwater coastal lagoon of Greece. It covers only about 4 square km but is of great importance for breeding, migrating and wintering birds. It is difficult to predict what is present at Ismarida. Some years the lake is teeming with wildfowl, while other years, the area appears largely empty. The second, the Ptelia Lagoon, is the easternmost and largest of a string of coastal lagoons. Its water is brackish and the fringing vegetation is low. It attracts shorebirds like Kentish Plover, Black-winged Stilt, Avocet and various terns and gulls. Between the lakes and at the shore you traverse a mixture of agricultural land, cotton plantations, steppe-like grasslands, saltmarsh and dunes. Birds form the prime interest of this route.

Departure point Pagouria Getting there From the motorway, take the exit Komotini west and fol-

low the direction Komotini. Take the first right towards Paradimi and Pagouria. Beyond Pagouria, continue for about 4 km until you reach an information panel where you can park.

1

On your way down, keep an eye out for Roller, Lesser Grey Shrike and Lesser Kestrel. These once frequent steppe birds have nearly disappeared in the Thracian plain, but in this general region, they are still

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eastern rhodopes


route 14: lake ismarida and ptelia lagoon

regularly seen. Between Pagouria and the information panel, there is a very large Bee-eater colony close to the road.

3

Return along the road to Pagouria. There are several small tracks you can walk to the Vosvazis stream which feeds the lake. The Willow trees, pools and meadows may hold a number of birds, including Hoopoe, Golden Oriole, Roller, Bee-eater and Penduline Tit.

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nea sidirochori

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Follow the track that brings you closer to the lake. From there you have one of the few good views over the lake, where terns, pelicans, Pygmy Cormorants, Glossy Ibis and herons may be seen. In winter, look for White-headed Duck on the water. This rare species sometimes winters on Ismarida lake.

kalamokastro

pagouria

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Lake Ismarida

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5

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Upon reaching Pagouria turn right, direction Nea Sidirochori, cross the river and turn Ptelia right again, following the Lagoon unpaved dam. The first 6 section leads along the same tree-fringed stream, but soon the vast reedbeds of the Ismarida come in light house 0 sight and the track becomes too rough to drive. Continue on foot to look for Great Reed Warbler, Moustached Warbler and Water Rail in the reeds (the latter two in winter). In winter, the wet fields on the left are a favoured haunt for Spotted and White-tailed Eagle, and for waders during migration. In summer, the beautiful Small-headed Blue Eryngo flowers along the track. Return to the tarmac road and turn right to Nea Sidirochori. In the village, turn right again. The track ends on a minor road, where you turn right, cross the river (which is the outlet of the lake), and directly there after, turn onto a dirt track to the left.

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i

2 km

=information panel


route 14: lake ismarida and ptelia lagoon

190

5

You cross a sandy grassland, with patches with large rushes, and the occasional brackish pool. In spring, this is a good area to look for Tortoises, lizards and snakes. Further on, the track runs along a slope and arrives at a junction, where you turn right, onto a plateau. Here you arrive at a minor tarmac road. Turn left towards the cape.

6

The next section runs along some dunes and the beach on your left, and lake Ptelia on your right. The dunes sport an interesting flora, with Sea Holly, Joint-pine and Cottonweed. The saline Ptelia lagoon on the right, could not be more different than reed-fringed lake Ismarida. Ptelia is a wide expanse, with open salt marsh at its edges. Depending on the season, you may find Greater Flamingo, Black-winged Stilt, Avocet, Shelduck, Mediterranean and Slender-billed Gull and various waders. The road ends at a chapel on a small hill, from which you overlook the Aegean Sea. The view is beautiful here, and there might be some sea birds. On your way back, it is worth driving by Kalamokastro (just north of Nea Sidirochori). A few pairs of Lesser Kestrel breed in the water tower, and are quite easy to see. These lovely birds have nearly disappeared in the region. This colony at Kalamokastro is the only one we know of.

Glossy Ibis (top) and Dalmatian Pelican (bottom) are two star species of Ismarida lake.

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eastern rhodopes


additional sites in the thracian plain

Additional sites in the Thracian Plain

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A – The Nestos Delta at Kavala airport

Close to Kavala airport lies a splendid coastal lagoon with a complex of reedbeds and small freshwater pools. This site is very much worth a visit. The reedbeds support, in winter, Waeratino ter Rail, Moustached Warbler, various grebes and sometimes Bearded Tit. In chrisochori the lagoon is a colony of MediterraKavala nean Gull. Most attractive however, is airport agiasma nea karia the long and narrow sand spit between best track the lagoon and the sea, where several Spur-winged Plovers breed and where in the early morning or late evening, you have a chance to see Golden Jackal. It is also a good spot for a swim. From Agiasma, drive past the airport alternative keramoti track and turn left just after the road bends to the right. Drive straight on to the coast (check the rice paddies for waders on the way) and turn left. This is the Overview of the Evros-Dadia region, best place for Spur-winged Plover, gulls, terns and waders. Alternatively, drive south from the centre of Agiasma and continue all with the position of the way to the coast, and left there. This is better for reed-dwelling birds. the routes. The letters

B – Canoeing the Nestos River

An excellent way to experience the Nestos Delta, is by canoeing down the river. You can stop on one of the many sand banks, enjoy the kingfishers and bee-eaters along the stream and marvel at the wild shore vegetation. You can rent canoes at Toxotes with the local company Riverland (www.riverland.gr; Tel; +30 25410 62488). Some of the staff speak English. For groups you can arrange guided canoe trips focussing on the nature of the Nestos.

C – Nestos viewpoint

From Toxotes (departure point of the Nestos Gorge walk), you can drive up to the nearest peak that overlooks the Nestos gorge and to the south, The Nestos delta, Aegean Sea and Thracian plain. At an altitude of 800 metres right beside the sea level plain, you can imagine the views on a clear day are downright superb. It also used te be an excellent place to

practical part

refers to the sites on page 211-213.


crossbill guides foundation The Eastern Rhodopes lie on the border between Greece and Bulgaria. On both sides there is a splendid, authentic and little visited landscape with a rich flora and fauna. The Bulgarian Eastern Rhodope mountains are a wild area where large numbers of region birds of prey patrol the skies, wolves and jackals hide in the woodlands and scores of butterflies and wildflowers grace the meadows. The lowlands of Greece, with famous areas like Dadia, Evros and Nestos, are a birding hotspot with attractions like pelicans, Pygmy Cormorants and Spur-winged Plovers. eastern

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The guide that covers the wildflowers, birds and all other wildlife Routes, where-to-watch-birds information and other observation tips Insightful information on landscape and ecology

www . crossbillguides . org

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Eastern Rhodopes - Nestos, Evros and Dadia - Bulgaria and Greece | www.crossbillguides.org  
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