Environmental volunteering

According to Wikipedia:
Environmental volunteers conduct a range of activities including environmental monitoring (e.g. wildlife); ecological restoration such as revegetation and weed removal, and educating others about the natural environment. They also participate in community-based projects, such as improving footpaths, open spaces, and local amenities for the benefit of the local community and visitors. The uptake of environmental volunteering stems in part from the benefits for the volunteers themselves, such as improving social networks and developing a sense of place.

Participation in such projects can be at a local level (even your backyard), or you can travel to the ends of the earth.  You can put in a lot of time and energy, or just a little time or energy, and you can do it for just a few hours, a few weeks, or for a few hours a week or month for several years.

Volunteering may mean getting close and personal with wildlife – perhaps a bit of radio-tracking work, behavioural observations, etc – but more often is about the interface between people and wildlife.  The bears in the photos are two of about 70 in a sanctuary in Romania where volunteers support local staff, allowing them time to do educational work and to rescue more bears.   

Other projects may involve the restoration of habitat, or building facilities so that visitors may enjoy and learn about wildlife.

But it is also possible to volunteer on your own, collecting data in your own time and at your own pace. Data that organisations can use chart changes in numbers over time, which can then be used to influence environmental policies.

Here are some examples of volunteering that I have been involved in, and some guidance from responsibletravel.com who advertise selected eco-volunteer holidays on their website.

This information is inevitably UK based – other countries will also have volunteer organisations and schemes.


Local volunteering – citizen science

Volunteering on long-term surveys such as a butterfly transect provides data for monitoring the distribution and population both common and rare species – the small tortoiseshell has declined in the past ten years.

The British Trust for Ornithology (BTO) is the largest organiser of bird surveys in Europe.  Through the efforts of volunteers participating in BTO surveys, the bird populations of the British Isles have been monitored more effectively and for longer than those of most other parts of the world. This has produced a uniquely rich and detailed body of scientific work. This will help us to understand the complex challenges facing wild birds at a time of great change in the environment. 

The Wetland Bird Survey requires a day a month of counting birds on estuaries, lakes and reservoirs, while the Garden Bird Survey only needs you to look out of your window a few times a week.  Monitoring bird nests requires a little more skill (easily learned) and effort, while bird ringing requires a lot more time and dedication to learn the necessary skills before you are allowed to go and practice on your own.  See the website for the full list of surveys to get involved with.

This kind of voluntary work – which ultimately involves gathering data – is known as citizen science.  Other organisations such as Butterfly Conservation, the Botanical Society of the British Isles and British Dragonfly Society, also rely on members and enthusiasts to gather specific data to use for scientific or conservation purposes.  

An example of a short-period citizen science is the Bioblitz.  Organised at sites all around the country, these may be days when “expert enthusiasts” get together to find as many species as possible on that site, or they may primarily function as events to introduce the general public to nature.  

Sign up now!

How the information is put to use

Citizen scientists help uncover mysteries behind House Sparrow population declines

Although House Sparrows are conspicuous birds and can still be found cheeping away in many areas, their numbers have fallen sharply in recent years, leading to their inclusion on the Birds of Conservation Concern Red List. Declines are greater in urban than in rural areas, and in eastern and south-eastern Britain than in other parts of the country (where the population is stable or increasing).  A new study by the BTO has used data collected by volunteers participating in Garden Birdwatch (GBW), the Nest Record Scheme (NRS) and the Breeding Bird Survey (BBS) to investigate possible reasons underpinning these trends.

The research focussed on measures of breeding performance.  In keeping with population trends, GBW data showed that annual productivity was highest in Wales and lowest in the east of England, but that there was no difference between rural and urban areas.  The regional difference in GBW productivity was mirrored by NRS data, which revealed that House Sparrow clutch and brood sizes were significantly lower in the east of Britain than in the west.  The number of breeding attempts per year and post-fledging survival did not differ between regions, so are not thought to contribute to the differences in population trends.

The results suggest that the processes driving regional differences in House Sparrow productivity are likely to be complex and operating over a large-scale (e.g. climatic processes), but interacting with local factors (e.g. habitat changes). The absence of productivity differences between rural and urban areas suggests other factors contribute to the varying population trends in these habitats, for instance, differences in food availability affecting adult survival.  This work demonstrates the importance of large-scale datasets collected by citizen science projects in understanding drivers of population change, which is vital for implementing effective conservation measures.

More information about this and other science results on the BTO website


Germany, 1973

In order to maintain the heathland and its unique flora and fauna, trees have to be removed.

There were eleven of us – two Irish, one Norwegian-American, three German, three French, one English, one Turkish.  We did not have a common language though everyone spoke at least one (and mostly two) of English, German or French. We were all students, aged between 16 and 23.  None of us had any idea of what we were going to be doing – or any experience of eco-volunteering.

We were collected from Cologne railway station, and driven for a couple of hours to a forested area near Munster.  A large corrugated tin hut was to be our home for the next three weeks, and that – the leader pointed to a ramshackle assortment of logs and tarpaulin – was the washroom.  The toilets were two huts over pits in the ground.  By mutual consent, we hastily rearranged the bunks and cupboards in the hut so that girls and boys were in separate sections.  And then found a spare blanket to hang in front of the showers give some privacy from the rest of the “washroom”.

Looking back, our mission was clear.  We were clearing trees that were threatening to take over an area of heathland.  At the time, however, we were just following instructions.  I learned the names of trees in German before I knew them in English – Eiche, Birke, Kiefe (Oak, Birch, Pine).  I learned to use a machete and an axe – but was more than happy to leave the chainsaw to the boys.

This camp was one of many organised by the IJGD which was set up after WW2, and is still running camps today. The ethos of the organisation is based around getting young people to live and work together, organising their daily lives as a group (we had to organise our own shopping trips, do most of our own cooking etc) and undertaking ecological or social work under the guidance of a local leader.  We had one leader (who spoke only in German) for the forestry work, and another (who also spoke English and French) who was probably more of a liaison person with the local town council.  

The town council arranged various excursions for our spare time – we “worked” only an average five hours a day.  One day we had afternoon tea in the town hall, and a tour of the premises; another day there was an evening of music in a local tavern; a helicopter ride from the local army base; a ride in a small plane; a pony and trap ride; an afternoon of cycling to explore the countryside; a visit to a brewery to see how the local beer was made; etc.

But that was 1973 – I don’t suppose today’s economy would allow so many luxuries!


Skokholm, Wales, 1988-2018

Skokholm – the Wheelhouse in 2010 above, and 2014 below. Just some of the renovations carried out by volunteers for the love of being on this ‘Dream Island’.

Skokholm Island lies a short distance off the coast of Pembrokeshire.  Until recently there was no running water, no electricity, no telephone, no television.  I visited twice in the 1980s as a paying guest, and maybe twenty times since then as a volunteer.  Volunteering can be as simple as a day helping the wardens get themselves and their food and equipment to and from the island at the ends of the season, or it can be staying on the island to work.

Work usually includes scrubbing and painting the buildings at the start of the season in preparation for paying visitors, and then cleaning and storing stuff at the end of the season to keep it safe from the damp and the house-mice.  But it has also included upgrading the accommodation.  

For any place to accept paying guests, there are certain hygiene, and health and safety, requirements.  One year (early 1990s) we were told that food could not be cooked in the same room as it was served, so suddenly we had to convert the larder into a kitchen, and a small storeroom into a new larder.  The work was done by volunteers – one of whom was so keen to get started he was pulling walls down and creating dust before we’d finished washing the breakfast crockery – and by a group on a government youth opportunities program.  I was cooking that week, and had an assistant who insisted on putting either garlic and/or lemon in everything.

More recently, a considerable amount of work has been done to conserve (in some cases rebuild) and upgrade the accommodation.  Most of the work has been done by volunteers, although professionals have been brought in where necessary – where health and safety issues were concerned (eg roofing, and rebuilding the landing stage), or specific skills required.  

The island now has electricity, thanks to the advent of solar PV panels.  The buildings now have running water – previously it was pumped by hand from the well into plastic containers, and taken to the buildings by wheelbarrow.  The kitchen has a hot water supply thanks to solar panels, and the hot water supply has now been extended to the bedrooms, which also have a piped waste system (previously it was a bucket under the sink), and there are composting toilets which are much more pleasant to use (and to empty) than the old chemical toilets.

Puffins are one of the charismatic seabirds of Skokholm Island, along with razorbills, guillemots, Manx shearwaters and storm petrels.

All this work has been enthusiastically undertaken because people consider the island is a wonderful place to be.  In summer it is teeming with seabirds, in spring and autumn migrant birds of all sorts can turn up.  Despite the living improvements, it still retains its air of isolation and remoteness.  The weather is unpredictable,  the boat can’t always come and go on a regular schedule – often visitors have to wait a day or two to get on, and maybe have to leave a day early (or even stay an extra week) because the weather is bad.

We spent three weeks there in April 2012 – it was wet, windy and horrible a lot of the time.  On several days I found myself preparing vegetable soup for lunch wearing several layers of clothes, topped with waterproofs, wellies and a woolly hat.  

Conversely, we had a week there in September 2018 – a glorious week of wonderful weather, bird migration was slow, but there was a wryneck on the island.  One team of people were cleaning and painting the lighthouse, another team built a new hide overlooking North Pond.  Bob and I were part of another team on a long-term project to transfer all the island biological data from hand-written logs onto spreadsheets.

It’s an amazing place with amazing people.  There is nobody actually in charge, but a group of people who are here because they love the island.  They all have different skills, appropriate to the jobs this week.  There is a list of jobs that need to be done, and when anyone has finished what they are doing, they tick it off on the board, and pick another job to get on with.  And the amount of work that is being done is just amazing.  (Skokholm volunteer, 2012)

Skokholm Island is owned by the Wildlife Trust of South and West Wales. There is accommodation and facilities for researchers, ringers, and for people who just want a quiet holiday on a lovely island. There are more opportunities for volunteers on the nearby Skomer Island.

The Friends of Skomer and Skokholm organised the work parties with help from local companies such as Dale Sailing.

The island has now regained its status as a bird observatory, and has full-time wardens –  See the island blog.

Skokholm accommodation and library block, with new roof and solar PV panels for lighting (no more gas or oil lamps). Comfort for volunteers, as well as for the paying guests that come to enjoy the puffins and other wildlife on this island. (2010 top and 2014 below)

Conservation and wildlife volunteering 

Article from Sarah Bareham of responsibletravel.com

With an ever-expanding array of volunteer opportunities available it can be increasingly difficult to understand which projects are of genuine value to conservation efforts,  which are having little impact and worse, those which work against community and conservation aims. However, with the right preparation and research well-intentioned prospective volunteers can ensure their time and effort will not go to waste, or cause harm.

Responsibletravel.com’s main advice to any traveller looking for volunteer opportunities is to ask questions, and plenty of them. To be truly sustainable a project should be driven by the needs and expectations of the host community and for a conservation or wildlife project to be successful in the long term local people need to see the value in supporting it, they should be the ones which own and lead it, with volunteers providing support to help them meet their aims. For example, through its close work with local people this brown bear conservation project in Romania has started to change attitudes towards bear welfare among the general public, with more and more realising that capturing wild bears for entertainment purposes is not only a betrayal of animal welfare, but of the country’s own natural heritage. 

We encourage prospective volunteers to speak with their placement and find out what the long-term aims of the project are, and how their work will fit into this. Volunteers should have a clear and defined role, and should undergo a selection process that matches their skills to the opportunities available. It should be possible, upon questioning the potential placement, to find out more about the project’s history, how it is monitored, where your payment goes, what role the volunteers play and to be able to speak with previous volunteers to understand more about their personal experiences.

Conservation projects with long term sustainability at heart are also likely to offer education programmes for local communities and schools. Educating the younger generation as to the importance of the project, and engaging them at an early age increases the likelihood of long term success. Ask whether this is part of the work your prospective placement does. It may mean you will also be volunteering closely with local children – there are a number of issues to consider if this is the case. 

With wildlife rescue projects volunteers should be aware that the more contact wild animals have with humans, the less their chance of successful reintegration back into the wild. If the project you are considering aims to rehabilitate and release animals be aware that hands-on contact with wildlife will be very unlikely, reserved only for those with specific knowledge and skills, such as veterinarians. If you are invited to play with, interact and pet the animals it is unlikely that successful reintroduction into the wild is their real aim. The Born Free Foundation’s guidance notes on issues in wildlife volunteering, sanctuaries and captive breeding programmes for conservation are a useful resource for prospective volunteers. 

https://www.responsibletravel.com/holiday/33237/turtle-conservation-in-greece

All holidays and volunteering opportunities on responsibletravel.com have been carefully screened for their commitment to responsible tourism. We have also worked closely in the past with the Born Free Foundation and Care for the Wild, whose Right Tourism campaign holds a wealth of information on what travellers can do to ensure their work is contributing to the protection rather than exploitation of wild animals. The Born Free Foundation also has a Travellers Animal Alert system where volunteers concerned about the in poorly run sanctuaries can report the establishment for further investigation.

For carefully screened wildlife and conservation volunteer placements in Europe go to responsibletravel.com


Bookshop

These are just a few of the books based on data collected by volunteers who simply enjoy being out birdwatching, mammal-watching, moth trapping, etc. Click on covers for more information about the books


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Nature amongst the ruins at Delphi

Why Delphi

As far as plants and animals of rocky scrubby places are concerned, it doesn’t really matter if the rocky places are natural or man-made.  So long as they provide nutrients/food and shelter, they are worth colonising.  And the longer it is since humans colonised and abandoned the site, the better.

Best time to go – May-June

Many natural history tour groups now include ancient sites in their itineraries.  Such sites are often relatively easily accessible compared with nearby mountain paths, for example, and the animals are so used to humans being around that they are often more easily seen than when living “in the wild”.

Greece is particularly well endowed with ancient ruins, and is the ideal place to combine a human history and natural history trip. The city of Delphi is one of the more popular sites, being accessible on a day-trip from Athens.

About Delphi

According to legend, when the god Zeus released two eagles from opposite ends of the world, their paths crossed in the sky above Delphi, thus establishing the site as the centre of the earth (NB other sites also make this claim).

According to the Ancient Greece website Delphi was inhabited since Mycenaean times (14th – 11th c. B.C.) by a series of small settlements dedicated Mother Earth God. Then the worship of Apollo, as the god of light, harmony and order, was established between the 11th and 9th centuries B.C. Slowly, over the next five centuries the sanctuary grew in size and importance.

The site lost its importance with the rise of Christianity, and was eventually abandoned in the 7th century AD. The temples and other buildings slowly fell into ruin, and the place was apparently forgotten until it was rediscovered in the 1880s. Since then, it has been designated a World Heritage Site, some conservation and restoration work has been done, and now it is a well-regulated tourist attraction.

Getting the best out of Delphi

The ruined settlement covers a large area, and apart from the visitor centre, it is all open to the elements – so in the spring and summer, take plenty of sun-cream and water. If you can, get there early. If you’re on a day trip from Athens (or any other organised trip), you may just have to make the best of it. All the services are at the bottom of the site, so once you are through the gate, you head slowly and steadily to the stadium at the top. Have your lunch (and a siesta) while you are there, then head slowly back down – taking a different route. If you are looking at the ancient history as well as the natural history, you may need a couple of days there.

Things to look out for

Ground Pine 
Ajuga chaemapitys

Like many members of the mint family, ground pine contains essential oils, and in this case, they smell faintly of pine resin. The leaves also look a bit like pine needles. It likes dry open habitats, on calcareous soils.  Herbalists have used it for treating rheumatism and gout.

Grecian Golden-drops 
Onosma graecum

This intensely hairy plant grows on rocky calcareous areas from sea level to 850m. The hairs provide some defence against the arid conditions and prevent the plant from drying out.

Oriental Alkanet 
Alkanna orientalis

Found from southern Greece eastwards. Like other members of its family, it has medicinal uses, in particular as an anti-bacterial agent.

Rough Poppy
Papaver hybridum

The Mediterranean area, in general, seems to have an abundance of poppies, and identifying them can be a problem. Often, the main characteristic is the seed-pod. Rough poppies have round seedpods, with pale bristles along the “seams”.

Spiked Star of Bethlehem
Ornithogalum narbonense

This plant is found in grassy and dry areas, on waste ground and in rocky terrain from the Mediterranean basin eastwards, and from sea-level to 3000m.  It flowers in May and June, and is pollinated by insects. 

Soft Viper’s-grass
Scorzonera mollis

The common name refers to the grass-like stem leaves of this plant which is related to daisies and dandelions. It has many uses in traditional medicine – being considered anti-inflammatory, and a cure for infertility in women, amongst many others.

Birds

I didn’t see much in the way of bird life at Delphi on this trip – perhaps because it was primarily a botanical trip, and I was busy trying to keep up with the group and photograph the flowers and butterflies.  One bird, however, is difficult to miss during the spring and summer.  

Rock nuthatches nest all over the site – wherever they find a suitable crevice – or even an unsuitable one that they can adapt by plastering mud over the entrance.  Once the entrance is the right size, it keeps the chicks in, and most predators out.

Other species that breed here include black-eared wheatear, woodchat shrike and eastern orphean Warbler.

Butterflies

Of course, where there are flowers, there are butterflies – and Delphi is no exception.  

We were particularly entertained by a southern swallowtail Papilio alexanor, and a large wall brown amongst a dozen or so species.  But it was only May, and a few weeks later we would have seen a lot more.

Southern Swallowtail Papilio alexanor

Looks like a common swallowtail, but without all the black veins, and like a scarce swallowtail but not so elongated.  Found on hot, dry, steep slopes on limestone or similar calcareous substrates. In south-eastern Europe. Flies in search of mates and nectar, with red valerian Centranthus ruber being a preferred source.

Large Wall Brown Lasiommata maera

Widespread across Europe, but not found in Britain or the Netherlands.  This species also likes dry, grassy, rocky or stony places with steep slopes.  In the south it has two broods, flying from April onwards, while in northern Europe it has a single brood, flying from mid-June to late September.

Heath Fritillary Melitaea athalia

One of Britain’s rarest butterflies, yet the heath fritillary is found across most of Europe and Asia.

Fritillary means having a spotted or chequered pattern, so there are fritillary flowers as well as fritillary butterflies.

Pearl-bordered Fritillary Boloria euphrosyne

All the Fritillary butterflies have orange and black patterns, but you need to see both the upperside and underside of an individual to be sure of the identification.

The largest insect in Europe – up to 12 cm long

A careful look amongst the vegetation revealed more insects, many of them green and well camouflaged. While most of the grasshoppers and crickets leapt or flew quickly out of the way, the large, wingless bush-cricket above relied on its camouflage. It could have been any of the several species of Saga found in south-eastern Europe. but I’ve not yet been able to find information about how to distinguish them.

Known as the predatory bush cricket, or the spiked magician due to the way it waves its forelimbs to mesmerise its prey, these critters have the distinction of being hermaphrodite – the females reproduce asexually, and no males (of at least one species) have been reliably identified.

Each female lays up to 80 eggs (the largest insect eggs in Europe) in the soil, and these eggs may take up to five years to hatch, depending on the ambient temperature. Once hatched, the nymphs grow, mature, and lay eggs in a single season.

It occurs in meadows, pastures, shrubby hillsides, cereal fields and vineyards in southern and central Europe and eastwards to China. However, it is vulnerable to insecticides and habitat destruction, and the population is now spread thinly across its range.


Bookshop

Click on covers for more information

This is the standard flora for Greece.

First published in 1987, this guide lists many of the richest plant-hunting areas in southeast Europe at first hand, and each description is accompanied by several line drawings.

Names and describes almost 3,000 species of flowering plants in the region.

However, it is a key, and if you prefer to ID your flowers from pictures, then there are other books that might suit you better, but are not as comprehensive.

Note that buying books through these links earns a small commission (at no extra cost to you) that goes towards the cost of maintaining this website.

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More about nature and wildlife in Greece

Environmental volunteering

Environmental volunteering is a great way of getting to know more about a place or a species. It can be done quietly on a local level, or by joining a working group or a vacation.

The Axios Delta National Park

The Axios-Loudias-Aliakmon Delta area is one of the most biologically diverse areas in Greece – especially considering it is all flat land at sea level. It’s also easily accessible from Thessaloniki.

The Vouraikos Gorge

A trip through the Vouraikos Gorge to look for the wonderful wildlife there, especially the endemic plants.

Bear-watching

A round-up of opportunities for watching and photographing bears in Europe

The Axios Delta National Park

Or, to give it its full title: The National Park of the Deltas of Axios – Loudias – Aliakmonas

Why visit the Axios Delta?

Being close to Thessaloniki, it is fairly accessible

  • 299 species of birds, in other words 66% of the species observed in Greece today, of which 106 nest
  • 350 species and subspecies of plants
  • 40 species of mammals
  • 18 species of reptiles
  • 9 species of amphibians
  • 7 species of invertebrates
  • 25 habitats, of which two are priority habitats on a European level

About the delta area

Given its location on one of the main migratory routes in Europe, it’s not surprising that thousands of water birds stop in this wetland in order to feed and rest. Important numbers of waterbirds (at a European level) gather here during the winter. It’s not just the sheer number of individual birds that is impressive. A total of 299 species of birds have been documented in this area – that is, 66% of all bird species observed to be present in Greece. Of those 299 species, 106 nest here.

Parts of the area were designated a Ramsar Site in 1975 – when it was described as an extensive river delta including brackish lagoons, saltmarshes, and large areas of mudflats. Vegetation consists of scrub, riparian forest, wet meadows, reedbeds, and halophytic communities. 30 freshwater fish species occur in the river. An extremely important area for nesting and migrating waterbirds.

Thanks to its considerable ecological importance, this area is included in the Natura 2000 network of European ecological regions. The largest part of this protected area has been listed as a National Park since 2009 – it comprises 33.800 hectares, including the deltas and the estuaries of four rivers, the Lagoon of Kalochori and the Alykes Kitrous, the wetland of Nea Agathoupoli and the riverbed of Axios, reaching upstream to the Elli dam.

The importance of the delta area goes well beyond just the wildlife. It offers multiple benefits to man, for example a water for water supply and irrigation, it protects the inhabited and rural areas from flooding, regulates the climate, provides food, as well as allowing for research, education and recreation.

There is a lot more useful information on the Axios National Park website.

The red pointer is the location of the national park information centre. Alyki Kitrous is at the bottom (left of centre).

When to visit

Winter and spring are generally considered the best times to visit for birds. However, the autumn period is great for passage migrants – I visited in September, and it was pretty spectacular – 100 species in four days of just enjoying being there rather than trying to see as many species as possible. The greatest numbers of birds are seen in winter. The rice fields are flooded in late spring, providing food for the breeding birds, especially herons, egrets and cormorant. Avoid the summer it can be blisteringly hot, and generally unpleasant except at dawn and dusk.

There was certainly an abundance of dragonflies, mostly Sympetrum species, in September. However, the best time for plants, butterflies and insects in general is probably a bit earlier in the year.

At almost any time of year, the weather can change between hot and cold from one day to another. The Meltemi, a cold wind coming off the mountains to the north, is responsible for this. While the Meltemi can make the heat more bearable, at other times a warm and windproof coat is worth packing.

Note that most of the area is farmland criss-crossed with dykes and dirt roads used by farm vehicles. Most of the roads are drive-able in dry weather, but can be slippery (and treacherous) after rain, and there is a good chance of getting bogged down after prolonged wet weather. Even those that have tarmac are often damaged by heavy tractors and farm machinery.

Sousliks are a kind of ground squirrel. They fill a similar niche to rabbits in western Europe and marmots in the Alps, in terms of eating grass and digging burrows. They were once widespread across eastern Europe, but are becoming scarce. The Axios Delta is one of the best places to see them.

Best places to visit

Kalochori Lagoon

Kalochori village is easily accessible by bus from Thessaloniki, and footpaths lead from there to the lagoon. In winter there are flamingos, great flocks of them. And from autumn to spring there are plenty of waders (shorebirds) too – avocets, black-winged stilts, Kentish plovers, to name just a few. In recent years, water buffalo have been introduced to the area.

Gallikos river estuary

Avocets, black-winged stilts, common terns and little terns breed on the Gallikos estuary, which is accessible via footpaths from the Kalochori area, or further upstream. It also provides breeding areas for smaller birds – Cetti’s and other warblers – and herons. Ospreys and other raptors, and a whole variety of waders stop by on migration, and then there are wildfowl in winter.

White-tailed eagle

Axios RiverMavroni river mouthLoudias EstuaryAliakmonas Delta

As I was researching this area, making notes from my experiences and trying to update them from various websites, I discovered a page on the Axios Delta website that suggests several worthwhile routes through this main expanse of the delta, and what you might see on each.

Most of it is a rice-growing area. Rice fields attract lots of amphibians and fish, and these in turn attract lots of herons, as well as other waterbirds. The herons are particularly numerous – a census in 2015 estimated that this mixed colony of little egrets, night herons, squaccos, as well as cormorants, pygmy cormorants, spoonbills and glossy ibises (below), held over 2,500 nests!

Glossy ibis

Nea Agathoupoli

Nea Agathoupoli is at the western end of the main part of the national park. From the village, a track leads north to an observation tower from where you can overlook the Aliakmonas delta.  The tower is open only for limited periods, but there is plenty to be seen from the track as you pass scrub, salt flats, drainage channels, orchards, and a variety of other crops.  Beyond the tower, the track links with a network of other tracks (of varying quality) across the area, so plenty of opportunity for finding birds and other wildlife.

This area is host to thousands of mallard, teals, pochards, wigeon, mallard, pintail, gadwall and shoveler in winter. Herons, glossy ibis, shelduck, Kentish plover, Dalmatian pelican and white-tailed eagle are also seen here. And it’s also good for spur-thighed tortoises, water snakes, green lizards and dragonflies.

Common pratincoles are a regular attraction at the Alyki Kitrous

Alyki Kitrous

Alyki is Greek for saltpans, or salinas. The lagoon and saltworks at Kitrous are some 20km south of the main part of the national park. This site seems to be particularly good a migration periods. Access to the actual saltworks is limited, but you can walk around the lagoon and along the shore.

The park boasts eighteen species of reptile, including a large population of Hermann’s tortoise near the Alyki Kitrous.

So, there you have it

My guide to the Axios Delta National Park.

For my first visit in 1989, I had only sketch maps provided by other birdwatchers – in particular, Dave Gosney’s Finding Birds in Northern Greece. The book has been updated since then, but now, with the availability of Google maps and aerial photos, I get a much clearer image of where to go and what I missed previously.

The area was declared a national park in 2009, and now has a national park information office and visitor centre at Chalastra, so I expect that on my next visit, I’ll learn a lot more about the place.


Bookshop

There are a few books available that are specific to Greece. Birding in Greece is about bird-watching sites produced by the Greek Ornithogical Society. The finding birds book is the updated version of the book I used on my initial travels. (click on the cover for more information)

Most of the other books I have used are now out of print, but the general ones for Europe, shown below, are perfectly adequate.

This is the standard flora for Greece.

First published in 1987, this guide lists many of the richest plant-hunting areas in southeast Europe at first hand, and each description is accompanied by several line drawings.

Names and describes almost 3,000 species of flowering plants in the region.

However, it is a key, and if you prefer to ID your flowers from pictures, then there are other books that might suit better, but are not as comprehensive.

Note that buying books through these links earns a small commission (at no extra cost to you) that goes towards the cost of maintaining this website.


Other posts about Greece

Nature amongst the ruins at Delphi

Delphi may be best-known for the ruins of an ancient Greek settlement, but it is also a wonderful place for plants and insects. Best to visit in spring, before the vegetation is strimmed and tidied-up for the summer visitors.

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The Vouraikos Gorge

Why visit the Vouraikos Gorge?

The spectacular scenery

The abundance of wildlflowers – including a few found only in Greece, and one found only in the Gorge itself.

A variety of birds, mammals, reptiles, amphibians, butterflies, and other insects.

The heritage railway and the Mega Spilio Monastery

There are two ways to see the Vouraikos Gorge – either you walk through it, or take the train. Or perhaps you take the train, and spend a couple of hours wandering around near each station until the next train comes. The latter is probably best done at weekends when there are five trains each way a day, rather than the three on weekdays.

Beginning near the village of Priolithos in the Aroania/Chelmos mountains, the Vouraikos river flows some 40km past the towns of Kalavryta and Diakopto to the Gulf of Corinth. The gorge itself is the last half of this journey, where the river has cut through limestone and conglomerates, and now passes through dense vegetation and tunnels with many caves, passes and crags.

Legend has it that the name derives from Boura, a mythological daughter of Ion and Helice. She was courted by Hercules who opened the gorge in order to get closer to her.

The river and gorge and part of the National Park of Chelmos-Vouraikos, which was established in 2009 to preserve the biodiversity, the natural resources, and the ecological value of the natural ecosystems in the area. The steep sides of the gorge provide a myriad of micro-climates, with plenty of opportunity for plants to evolve into endemic species, and for scarce animals to find refuge.

The endemic plants include Silene conglomeratica (endemic to the gorge), Aurinia moreana, and Campanula topaliana subsp. cordifolia (pictured left).

Otters Lutra lutra hunt along the river. Bats (Miniopterus sehreibasi, Myotis blythii, Myotis myotis, Rhinolophus blasii, Rhinolophus ferrumequinum) also live in the caves and the rock crevices.

Several birds of prey nest on the rock ledges higher up.

The railway line dates from the 1890s. Charilaos Trikinos was the Greek prime minister at the time, and he wanted to create local railway networks to connect the interior regions with the main railway. These local railways were to be narrow gauge, because small trains were better suited to the mountainous country and were cheaper to construct. It also meant that, using a cog system, the trains could negotiate steeper inclines. This railway climbs 750m in its 20km journey. Since it was inaugurated on 10th March 1896, the trains have run every day, regardless of the weather (although parts of the line were closed for refurbishment when I visited).

The E4 European long distance footpath starts in Portugal and runs through the Alps before turning south through the Balkans and ending in Cyprus. It makes use of existing routes, including the railway line through the Vouraikos Gorge. That means that with some careful planning, and keeping an eye and ear out for trains, it is possible to take nature walks within the gorge.

The route

The first station north of Kalavrita is Zahlorov. From here we crossed the rail bridge over the river, noting pale speedwell Veronica cymbalaria and Narrow navelwort Umbilicus horizontalis (horizontalis refers to the flowers in this case, not the whole plant) growing from the crevices, and large plane trees Platanus orientalis shading the river valley below. Iridescent blue male beautiful demoiselle damselflies Calopteryx virgo were flitting from leaf to leaf, and showing off in the sun to the iridescent green females.

A road leads uphill from here to Mega Spilio Monastery, which is mostly located in a cave. The rocky slopes supported dry species from the garrigue – Rock bellflower Campanula rupestris, the pink cistuses Cistus incanus and C creticus, and kermes oak Quercus coccifera whose small holly-like leaves host the Kermes scale insect Kermes vermilio. These insects were harvested and dried, then used to produce a crimson dye until the mid-1500s when the cochineal insects were discovered on cactuses in America.

A stream frog Rana graeca was well camouflaged amongst the leaf litter until it moved. We examined it carefully because all the brown frogs look similar – the diagnostic feature here is that the distance between the nostrils is less than the distance between the eye and the nostril!

Closer to Diakopto the land flattens out somewhat to reveal extensive lemon and olive groves. Use of pesticides has meant that native wildflowers have largely been replaced by the invasive Bermuda buttercup Oxalis pes-caprae, but there are still some places with a mass of colour – bellflower Campanula ramoissima, blue houndstone Cynoglossum creticum, bug orchid Orchis coriophoroa, tongue orchid Serapia vomeracea, branching broomrape Orobanche ramosa, birthwort Aristolocia sempervirens, and grass poly Lythrum junceum, to name just a few, and then wonderful fields of scarlet poppies Papaver rhoeas.

Amongst the trees in one field, the dappled sunlight illuminated a patch of bright pink Cyclamen repandum ssp peloponnesiacum – a local speciality – pictured right.

In a nearby ditch we found shepherds needle Scandex pectin-veneris (the common name deriving from the striking seed pods), and also Calabrian soapwort Saponaria calabrica.

Diakopto itself is on the Corinthian Gulf, with maritime species along the shore by the railway line – yellow horned poppy Glaucium flavum, three-horned stock Malcomia tricuspidata, and sea beet Beta maritima.

On the way back to Kalavrita, we had views of a pair of short-toed eagles circling the top of the gorge. A delightful day out indeed.


Bookshop

This is the standard flora for Greece.

First published in 1987, this guide lists many of the richest plant-hunting areas in southeast Europe at first hand, and each description is accompanied by several line drawings.

Names and describes almost 3,000 species of flowering plants in the region.

However, it is a key, and if you prefer to ID your flowers from pictures, then there are other books that might suit better, but are not as comprehensive.

There are some books available that are specific to Greece – this one about bird-watching sites for example.

Most of the ones I have used are now out of print, but the general ones for Europe, shown below, are perfectly adequate.

Note that buying books through these links earns a small commission (at no extra cost to you) that goes towards the cost of maintaining this website.

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Bear-watching

Bear necessities

It was only a footprint, but it was BIG. I felt the hairs on the back of my neck rise, and the adrenalin starting to pump. The only animal I knew of that size was bear, and bears certainly lived in the area, though at low density and rarely seen.

A second look told me the prints were not that fresh – maybe during the night, or even yesterday. The bear probably was NOT still close by. But we couldn’t help looking around, just in case. And talking loudly – bears usually avoid humans, so best to let them know you are around.

Bob tried to convince me that it was some human pulling a joke, but I think he was actually quite worried about it. Was it coincidence that, while trying to photograph the footprint, I managed to knock the tripod over and damage the camera – beyond repair as it turned out.

We were hiking along a public trail through the Urho Kekkonen in the Saariselka Wilderness area of Finland – a few kilometres from the visitor centre at Tankavaara. The same few kilometres from the road where we were expecting to get the bus back to Saariselka. We arrived back at the bus stop with 45 minutes to spare.

We certainly felt vulnerable – out in the open on foot. I had previously met black bears in America, but then I had been on horseback. A horse can outrun a bear on flat ground, a human can’t outrun a bear on any terrain – the bear has four legs and a low centre of gravity.

But it would be nice to see a bear properly – the bear in the wild, the humans in a relaxed/safe situation. It had taken years to see just the footprint, so what is the best way to see the actual bear?

The most obvious answer is to join a bear-watching holiday. These come in several sizes. Note that I have no connection with any of these places/companies. This is just a round-up of bear-watching opportunities advertised on the internet.

Eco-volunteering –

You’ll learn about bears and their environment from people studying them, and also contribute to conservation in that country. Greece, Romania, Bulgaria and Finland are good destinations, and Responsible Travel a good company to use.  There is a lot of information about watching bears on their website. 

Romania – volunteering at a bear sanctuary (see here for an account of visiting a bear sanctuary in Romania)

Greece – Bear conservation tour

Bear-watching trips –

A specialist trip, (or part of a more general nature trip) usually of a few days, designed to put you (with your camera if desired) in a hide for one or more nights in the expectation of seeing a bear at dawn or dusk. Usually, you are taken by vehicle to within a short distance of the hide, then on foot for the last fifteen minutes or so. For overnight stays, the hide will have bunk beds, basic toilet facilities, and perhaps a means of heating food (but not proper cooking facilities). In the morning, or at a pre-arranged time, you are collected, walk back to the vehicle, and driven to your accommodation, or the nearest town, etc. While nothing is guaranteed, a few nights in a hide is probably the best opportunity to see a bear, or two or three, plus some other passing wildlife.

Downloadable leaflet – How to behave in bear country

Finland

Martinselkonen Nature Reserve, located in Eastern Finland, is one of the best places in Europe to photograph brown bears. This tranquil wilderness location is highly recommended – on occasion up to 20 bears and eight cubs have been seen in a single night! And there is plenty of other wildlife to be seen. The location is popular with holiday companies and is included in many of the following tours.

Bear Centre – 29 hides for watching and photography – April – September

Brown bears near Kuusamo – May – October – further north than the centres listed above.

Bears and other mammals – suggestions from Visit Finland

Finland guided tours

Bears, wolves and Wolverines – April – August, self-drive trip – On this unique wildlife adventure in the boreal forest of Finland you self-drive between lodges, allowing you to explore the wildlife of the taiga at your own pace. We have selected three lodges with a network of outstanding hides from which to watch and photograph such iconic inhabitants of the far north as brown bear, wolf, wolverine and white-tailed eagle. Throughout spring and summer these overnight hides offer mammal-watching which is unrivalled in northern Europe.

Wildlife Worldwide holidays will also organise a bespoke tour, and many other companies provide something similar, perhaps especially for photographers.  

Just brown bears – summer –  a long weekend Brown Bear-watching holiday amongst the fine taiga forests that straddle Finland’s border with Russia.

Brown bear explorer June & July – Long evenings and early dawns allow incomparable opportunities to watch and photograph the wildlife of the forest on this 8-day tour in Finland. Staying at purpose built hides, night vigils with a naturalist guide reward you with close-ups of brown bears, wolverines and occasionally wolves.

Brown bears in Finland – May-August – An ideal short-haul break to a wonderful location for sighting brown bears in the Finnish wilderness.

Brown bear and elk adventure – May – September

Bear photography – June – Join wildlife photographer Tom Mason on a midsummer trip to photograph brown bears and wolverines, with four nights in specialist hides in the taiga forest of Finland.

Sweden

Bear watching in Sweden – A 4-day holiday to an idyllic, rolling land of forests and lakes where we will look for Brown Bears from a luxurious purpose-built hide, and enjoy the natural history, beauty and extraordinary tranquillity of a magical place just five hours away

South-eastern Europe

BulgariaBears and wolves

RomaniaBear-watching and Transylvanian castles – May – September

SloveniaHiking & bear-watching. Two perfect days to dive into the area of Kočevsko forest. Spend time in nature in search of wildlife and enjoy local delicacies. May – October

Slovenia –

Greece

Brown bear tracking in the northern Pindos – May – October – Track wild bears in a pristine mountainous corner of Greece: Northern Pindos. Back to nature with the friendly guides of wildlife charity CALLISTO to hear about bear research methods, walk in the wilderness, and witness traces of wild bears. Note – this is basically the same as the bear conservation tour listed under eco-volunteering, but with a different company.

Spain

Watching bears in northern Spain

A year in the life of a bear

March-April: bears emerge from hibernation, including cubs taking their first look at the outside world. All they want to do in spring is eat, to rebuild the reserves lost through the long winter sleep.

May to July: mating season, when males persistently follow females everywhere.

August-October: it is eating season again, as bears fatten up in preparation for hibernation.

More information about bears on the Euronatur website

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