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.


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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

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

Botany and Butterflies in the French Alps

Why the French Alps

A high biodiversity due mainly to the large range in altitude

A relative lack of intensive farming means more space for wildlife

My week at this site, with a botanical group, resulted in lists of 418 plant species, 41 butterfly species, 46 birds species and a few other odds and ends.

However, had it not been for the emphasis on botany, I’m sure we would have found a lot more of the other things.

Best time to go? May – August

La Grave

La Grave – it sounds ominous. But the name of this small French village actually means severe.  And it refers to the terrain, which is difficult to navigate.  Despite the presence of a telepherique, there are no ski pistes, and it isn’t a ski resort.  This is where the really adventurous skiers go – and a guide is recommended, if not a necessity, for most.  Too many people have met their deaths here.

In summer, it is a different story.  Like so much of the Alps, it is a paradise for botanists and butterfly watchers.  There are plenty of footpaths, and the telepherique comes in handy for getting to those high levels where only the specialist plants can survive. 

One reason for the diversity of plant and butterfly life here is the huge vertical distance – over 3,000m – from the valley bottoms to the mountain peaks. Another is the orientation of the slopes – most are facing either north or south. And thirdly, there is geology. A geological map of the area shows a patchwork of colour, representing and whole range of acid to alkaline rocks, which in turn affect the soil types, and therefore the plants that grow in particular localities.

Walking around the village, along the roads to villages higher up the slope, along the Romanche river at the bottom of the valley, through the Arboretum (where there is a small collection of trees labelled only in French) provides a good introduction to the local plants and butterflies. But while you are there, it’s worth visiting a few other nearby sites.

The Alpine Botanical Garden at Lautaret

To help get into the right frame of mind for Alpine plants, start at the Alpine Botanical Garden at the Col du Lauteret.  It is well worth a visit, and all the plants are labelled!

The Col du Lautaret is located at the crossroads of the Northern Alps (high snow cover and cloud amount) and the Southern Alps (high levels of sunshine and Mediterranean influence) on the border of the external Alps (oceanic influence causing high levels of precipitation) and the dry inner alps (continental influence).

Add to that, the varied geology and altitude (Lautaret is at 2058m) of the immediate area, and it isn’t surprising that over 1500 species of higher plants have been recorded here.  It is a site of considerable botanical research, being part of the University of Grenoble.

At the end of the 19th century, dozens of botanical gardens sprang up in Europe.  The garden at Lautaret was opened in 1899, presenting a rich systematic collection of 500 species from the western Alps, all painstakingly classed and labelled.

Round-headed orchid Traunsteinera globosa
Vanilla orchid Nigritella rubra
Man orchid Orchis anthropophora

In 1915 the highways agency of the time decided to improve the road between Lautaret and Galibier – right through the garden.  The garden had to move – not far – to its current position, where it is easily accessible to travellers through the Alps. 

In the last twenty years, in particular, it has grown in both popularity and size.  There are now collections of alpine (and arctic) plants from various regions of the world. The garden website includes a virtual tour.

There is limited parking on-site, but plenty nearby at the Col du Lautaret itself.  Walking the few hundred metres along the road winding up to the garden is a delight in itself – enough to keep any botanist happy for an hour or two.

Once in the garden, you can wander around the various alpine areas of the world, though I settled for just the local stuff.  It’s a great introduction to the local flora as all the specimens are labelled.  Ideally, a place to visit at the start of a botanical trip to the area, and again at the end to answer the questions you found along the way.  Certainly, in these days of digital photography, it’s useful to be able to compare photos with labelled specimens, or ask someone.

Titania’s fritillary Clossiana titania and small skipper Thymelicus sylvestris on field scabious Knautia arvensis.

There are areas of alpine meadows where such striking local plants as Campanula thyrsoides ssp thyrsoides could be seen. In the fields behind the café opposite the car park there was spotted gentian Gentiana punctata as well as the much more common spring and trumpet gentians Gentiana verna and G acualis.  This, with a background of the green valleys and the rocky mountain peaks, some still snow-capped, forms a picture that is difficult to beat.

So, even if you can’t spend time wandering alpine paths and discovering the flora for yourself, you can still enjoy it in the Alpine Botanical Garden.  And the learn more about the Parc National des Ecrins in the Maison du Parc, have a meal in the French restaurant, stay overnight in the Hotel des Glacier, and do more of the same the next day!

Part of the panoramic view from the telepherique top station.

La Meije

La Meije is the mountain massif overlooking La Grave from the south. The name is derived from a local word meaning midday, and refers to the fact that the sun passes over (or behind depending on the season) the peak at midday.

There are some footpaths – some of them quite a scramble in places. So the best way to explore the botany is to make us of the Telepherique de la Meije which starts in la Grave. There is a middle station, and a top station.

The top station overlooks the Girose glacier, and a wonderful panorama (above) of the other nearby glaciers and mountain peaks. It’s a pretty stark place, but a few plants can be found at the top – glacier crowfoot Ranunculus glacialis and Alpine toadflax Linaria alpina survive mainly in the lee of the structure that supports a cafe above the glacier. The cafe provides welcome hot drinks!

Alpine toadflax Linaria alpina
Glacier crowfoot Ranunculus glacialis
The Meije glacier from the middle station.
Shepherd’s Fritillary  Boloria pales – a high altitude butterfly photographed near the middle station.

The Col du Galibier

The Col du Galibier – looking to the north side, the Col du Télégraphe. On these higher levels, the plants are often small, only a few centimetres tall to avoid the stresses of harshness of life at high altitude.  Lower down, where there is more shelter, the plants are often taller and more luxurious.

At 2,645m, the Col du Galibier is probably best known for being (often) the highest point of the Tour du France cycle race.  The pass is closed during the winter.  The road over the top is the ninth highest paved road in the Alps.  It wasn’t actually paved until 1976 when the tunnel (at 2556m) was closed for restoration and an alternative route over the mountains was needed until the tunnel reopened in 2002.

According to local folklore, before the tunnel no one from the north side of the Galibier ever married anyone from the south. The people of each side were different and full of mistrust for each other. The isolation of the north side was compounded by its climate, which is still much harsher than the south.

Alpine Avens Geum rossii
Mount Baldo Anemone Anemone baldensis
Unbranched Lovage Ligusticum mutellinoides
Above the villages, there is a flattish ‘shoulder’ of land used for summer grazing – this is what is meant by an alp. This seems to be a particularly good area for plants and butterflies. Visiting these alps before breakfast – while it was still cool and the butterflies relatively inactive – proved to be the best time for photography.
Apollo Parnassius apollo
Chequered Skipper Carterocephalus palaemon
Darwin’s Heath Coenonympha darwiniana

La Grave – getting there

It is possible to get to La Grave by public transport – eg bus from Grenoble (Rome2Rio website) – and on to the Col du Lautaret. However, anywhere else beyond walking distance requires a car or a bike. The Hotel Edelweiss in La Grave offers mountain e-bike tours.

Hotel Edelweiss – There is other accommodation in the village, but this is where I stayed – very comfortable and friendly.

See it on Google maps

Resources

La Grave – information in Wikipedia

Telepheriques des Glaciers la Grave/la Meije

The Col du Galibier is on the route of the Tour de France cycle race, but still great for wildlife and scenery.

The Botanical Garden – in French or in English

The Parc National des Ecrins is immediately south of the road and is my favourite French National Park – scenery, wildlife, walking etc.

Organised trips

The company I travelled with ceased to exist when the owners retired, however, there are a number of other companies which provide nature trips to the Alps, for example:

Greenwings wildlife holidays – Butterflies of the French Alps

Naturetrek – Italian and French Alps


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English language field guides to Alpine plants are hard to find. These French ones have pictures and icons that make them reasonably usable to anyone.

If you are trying to buy a wildflower book in advance, make sure it is about the Alpine flora in Europe, rather than Alpine regions of North or South America, or Australia or New Zealand, for example.

The Alpine Botanical Garden at Lautaret

More articles about the Alps

Nature of Grindelwald

The area around Grindelwald, in the shadow of the Eiger and the Jungfrau, is great for plants, birds, and butterflies as well as just great scenery for hiking through.

Birdwatching in Hungary in Spring-Summer

Why Hungary?

With a scenic landscape of wooded hills and endless flat plains, dotted with reed-fringed lakes and cut by the mighty Danube River, it is not surprising to find that Hungary is one of Europe’s best wildlife destinations.

It has abundant and varied birdlife, and also has much to offer in terms of butterflies and other wildlife. 

And then there is a rich folklore, culture, wines and food.

In early May the resident birds are joined by migrating waders, warblers and raptors on their way further north and the woods are alive with birdsong.

While there is plenty to explore, for those on a time-limited trip, probably the best places are the forested Zemplen Hills and the Bukk National Park in the north-east, and the lowland steppe, grassland and farmlands of the Kiskunság and Hortobágy National Parks.

Kiskunság National Park

Just an hour’s drive from Budapest, the Kiskunság National Park is a tranquil lowland region of steppe, sandy dunes, farmland and wooded copses. It is one of Hungary’s most important areas for the great bustard, which should be displaying in April and May.  Collared pratincoles breed here, whilst the ponds and gravel pits attract three species of marsh terns, plus red-crested pochard, ferruginous duck, garganey and pygmy cormorant. The reedbeds are home to moustached, Savi’s and great reed warblers, whilst overhead you can see Montagu’s harrier, saker falcon and red-footed falcon. Keep an eye on utility wires for roller and lesser grey shrike.  An evening walk could well produce scops owl, long-eared owl and nightjar.

Eagle Owl

Zemplen Hills

North-east of Kiskunság, the Zemplen protected landscape is characterised by dense broad-leaved forests, traditionally farmed fields, flowering meadows and vineyards. Nine species of woodpecker (including the rare white-backed woodpecker) can be found here. This is the best area for Ural and eagle owls. It is also rich in other birds of prey, with goshawk, eastern imperial, short-toed and lesser spotted eagles all breeding. While corncrakes are more likely to be heard than seen, there will be many more obvious birds to enjoy such as woodlark, red-backed shrike, black redstart, barred warbler and golden oriole to name but a few.

Lesser Spotted Eagle

Bükk National Park

The hills and forests of Hungary’s largest national park include important geological features, as well as some 90 species of breeding birds.

In the abandoned, uneven-aged forest, woodpeckers and flycatchers are common.  Eight species of woodpecker are resident here including Syrian, lesser-spotted, middle-spotted, white-backed, grey-headed and the mighty black woodpecker, and wrynecks are now back from their wintering areas.  Other species include hawfinch, turtle dove, yellowhammer, corn bunting, both short-toed and common treecreepers, Eurasian tree sparrow, marsh tit, the white-headed form of long-tailed tit, serin, barred warbler and black redstart. This area is remote and unspoiled enough to have black stork, saker falcon, and imperial, golden, lesser-spotted and short-toed eagles breeding. White storks are obvious on their huge nests in villages while black storks are a little harder to find.  Evenings sounds are dominated by owls, especially the crooning of Eurasian eagle owls.

And of course, there are plenty of plants, butterflies and other wildlife too.

Lesser Spotted Woodpecker

Hortobágy National Park

Probably the best-known of the Hungarian National Parks, the Hortobágy is the foremost wildlife region of the country and one of Europe’s most valuable ecological areas. It is a flat land of distant horizons, small woodlands and reed-fringed fish ponds, but dominated by the lowland semi-steppe and grassland known as the ‘puszta’.

The grasslands are home to an abundance of small mammals, including the souslik (a kind of ground squirrel) and insects, making this an excellent area for long-legged buzzards, imperial eagles, Montagu’s harriers and saker and red-footed falcons.  Great bustards, stone curlews, collared pratincoles and white-winged terns can be found here. White storks nest on the roofs of cottages, flocks of gaggling white geese, shepherds with their scruffy ‘puli’ dogs, are all part of the atmosphere of the puszta, an area which is steeped in folklore and myth.

The huge complexes of fishponds that dot the Hortobágy are rich in breeding marshland birds and are a magnet for migrating waders and passerines. In May, the reedbeds are a cacophony of song, from the loud, harsh notes of great reed Warblers, to the sweeter, mellow songs of marsh and moustached warblers and the reeling of Savi’s warblers. Adjacent to the fishponds are sedge beds which are also home to the beautiful, but sadly declining, aquatic warbler. By early May the herons and egrets are nesting in their large raucous colonies. As well as spoonbill, great egret, purple heron and glossy ibis, the secretive bittern also occurs, and can often be heard booming from the surrounding reedbeds. Other interesting species include whiskered tern, black-necked grebe and pygmy cormorant.

Collared Pratincoles

Fertő-Hanság National Park

Fertő is the Hungarian name for the Neusiedler See (Tő = Lake).  The two national parks are part of the same ecosystem – based around the lake and the surrounding landscapes. The reedbeds are extensive, and good for a variety of heron species. Shoveler and ferruginous ducks breed there, as do black-tailed godwits and Kentish plovers. Reedbed warblers are common, and it’s probably the best place in Hungary for moustached warblers which may stay right through until October. National Park website


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Resources

Hungarian Tourist Information

Hungary travel guide (Wikitravel)

Birding Pals in Hungary – links to local birders

Hungarian-based websites/tour operators

Farm Lator is an eco-friendly farmhouse accommodation & campsite located in North-eastern Hungary. It is run by an English-speaking wildlife guide offering various nature holidays for independent travellers and groups. They cater for birdwatching, butterflies and moths, general natural history, wildlife photography tours/workshops, mammal trips and family holidays.

Hungarianbirdwatching.com is an association of young, enthusiastic birders who organise birding tours and birdwatching holidays in Hungary and in Budapest. Their birding tours are highly customised to your needs.

Birding Hungary – for bird sightings

Ecotours organise a variety of natural history tours in Eastern Europe. Their Kondor EcoLodge offers a unique place at the westernmost edge of the Eurasian Steppe to discover the special mammals, birds, reptiles, amphibians, butterflies, moths, dragonflies, other invertebrates, wildflowers and other natural values of the “Hungarian Puszta” or flat grassland.

Saker Tour specialise in bird and bird photography holidays in Eastern Europe – their blog gives an idea of what you are likely to see from their photography hides in the Hortobágy

Kopački Rit

I wouldn’t normally recommend visiting anywhere in August for birdwatching – things are usually quiet as young birds are keeping out of the way while they begin to discover independent life, and their parents are keeping out of sight while they moult and feed up to recover from the breeding season.  Also, it can be hot, especially in a continental climate. 

However, we were on our way to Greece in a campervan, and that meant travelling through the old Yugoslavia in the heat.  We stopped at a few places en route.  And some of them turned out to be real gems.

So, this piece is about my memories from then, followed by a description of the place now.  And it seems that the Kopački Rit Nature Reserve is good at any time of year.

August 1989

As we descended into the valley of the Drava, the floodplain appeared to be covered with reedbeds.  My heart sank as we got closer and I realised it was actually huge fields of maize.  Did the Kopački Rit still exist?  Had it been swallowed by intensive agriculture?

We stopped in Osijeck for groceries and information – not that there was much to be had back then.  At least we now knew we were on the right road.  We continued through another 10km or so of farmland, though it didn’t seem quite so intensive here.  And then suddenly we were in the wetland.

This was the edge of the park with fishponds – open water fringed with reeds – on one side of the road, and vast areas of rushes with clumps of willow on the other. On the water were hundreds of coot with a few each of moorhen, little and great-crested grebe and a few ducks. Moustached, reed and great reed warblers hunted in the vegetation.

Within a few minutes, an osprey flew in and circled the fishpond. It dived twice without success and eventually disappeared into the distance, mobbed continuously by common and whiskered terns, and black-headed gulls. A cuckoo flew past mobbed by a dozen hirundines.

A rush of coot and other birds over the water surface announced the arrival of a boat. The people on board were shovelling maize meal into the water – fish food that the birds weren’t interested in.

Purple Heron

There was a continual coming and going of waterbirds – purple and grey herons, cormorants, buzzards and marsh harriers, and sometimes a white stork too.

The road followed the edge of the fishpond then went straight north through farmland again. The drainage ditches were choked with yellow and white water lilies, and fringed with purple loosestrife, goldenrod etc; a few moorhen and mallard were in residence.

Dry-looking arable fields extended way beyond the channels. A black stork circled low over one field, working its way slowly along one edge, then it drifted back before going to rest in a dead tree at the edge of a wood.  In the sweltering midday heat, shade was hard to come by – the trees were too far from the road to be of much use. It was quiet except for the raucous calls of jays.

Back at the fishponds, we stopped on a track that leads into the park but has an “entry forbidden” on it. Sitting in the shade of the campervan’s tailgate, we watched birds coming and going for the rest of the day. To our right were the wooded rushes and willows, to the left was a fishpond with small fish – a tern paradise, and behind us the pond of bigger fish where we had stopped earlier.

Eight squacco herons were lined up along the edge of reeds; a little bittern flew in low, showing off its pale wing patches and landing clumsily on a reed; something disturbed a roost of night herons and scores of them emerged from some low trees; occasionally a little egret flew over.

White-tailed eagle – the emblem of the Kopački Rit Nature Park

We stayed put for the next four days.  Early in the morning, we would walk along the path on the top of a dyke, then back to the van before it got too hot – or sometimes when it was too hot as we got distracted by birds, mammals, reptiles and amphibians.  The shade of the tailgate provided some relief for the main part of the day, allowing us to watch the comings and goings of over 70 species of birds – including regular visits from white-tailed eagles as they picked up a free meal from the fishpond.  Then, in the evening, we’d take another stroll along the dyke.

The track was out of bounds to all except authorised vehicles and we saw only two cars during the morning. The driver of the second vehicle wanted to know what we were doing there and said something about it being a forbidden place. However, he seemed satisfied when I said the general tourist office in Osijek said we could walk here, so long as we didn’t leave the path.

One morning we watched as a couple of red deer came out of the vegetation, ran along the edge and plunged out of sight again. There were only tree sparrows occupying the top of a dead tree, but a movement lower down caught my eye. It looked at first like a squirrel but as the whole animal came into view its heavy build immediately distinguished it as a marten, then it disappeared into the foliage of a small tree below. Time to stop and watch!

After about five minutes the marten reappeared in another tree, moving slowly and deliberately from branch to branch, using its tail for balance; sometimes it leapt across a gap but always seem to stop to balance before moving on again. Its dark red-brown body and tail, contrasting with a yellow-cream throat, identified it as a pine marten. It showed itself four times for a few minutes each during a half-hour period as it explored the clump of trees thoroughly. Then it either went to sleep or moved to trees further away for we saw no more of it.

People were generally few and far between.  There was a Dutch couple who were pleased to see the sea eagle which was mobbed first by buzzards and later by marsh harriers as it soared over the marshes. Then an osprey arrived and caught a fish at the first attempt; it was mobbed by a black-headed gull which it easily outflew before flying in circles looking lost – perhaps it couldn’t see a suitable dining table. It was then chased by a marsh harrier which couldn’t keep up with it and was last seen being mobbed by buzzards as it disappeared into the distance.

Osprey

Our second visitor was a Frenchman called Dominic who had a long-term association with Kopacki Rit and permission to go into the reserve for bird photography. He is currently working on a book about the area. From him, we got some background information, for example the relative importance of the hunting reserve and its ability to bring in foreign currency while the bird reserve was left to its own devices apart from keeping people out. The fish ponds are managed in order to keep areas of open water but this does mean that many waterbird nests are destroyed when the reeds are cut.

Then there was Stefan, an over-enthusiastic photographer who admitted he was no ornithologist. He took pictures of the larger birds and game to sell to tourists. This was the third time we had seen him and he had brought some prints to show us. Dominic stopped by again and there was some bantering between the two photographers with the Frenchman repeatedly telling the Yugoslav that he has to approach things slowly, that he has to let the creatures know he loved them, and so on. Stefan gave the impression that he would just photograph purple herons one day, kingfishers the next, etc

You can read all of my notes from the five days here

European Pond Terrapin (Emys orbicularis)

Kopački Rit today

Looking at Google maps now, I can’t quite make out exactly where we stopped back in 1989. My notes say we were 10km from Osijek, which would put us at the north end of the reserve. However, it is possible that we were actually at the end of the road in the photo below. That road leads to the dyke – which now appears to be more accessible.

What is clear, though, is that this part of the reserve has received considerable development for visitor access and appreciation. The park website shows an extensive system of boardwalks and a visitor centre. There are exhibitions and educational/interpretive materials, guided tours, and a proper campsite nearby.

View of the boardwalks (image from the Kopački Rit website)

The Kopački Rit website provide a lot of useful background information, including the following facts:

  • The Nature Park encompasses a total of 231 km2, including a 71 km2 Special Zoological Reserve.
  • Nature Park Kopački Rit is one of the best-preserved large river floodplains in Europe.
  • Due to the abundance of fauna found in the southern part of the Park in particular, this area has been declared a Special Zoological Reserve.
  •  In 1986 it was included in the Important Bird Areas in Europe list. Its international significance was further confirmed in 1993, when it was included in the List of Wetlands of International Importance under the Ramsar Convention.

Kopački Rit is home to:

  • Some 300 bird species, of which 140 are breeding in the park
  • twelve species of amphibian
  • ten species of reptile
  • 50 species of freshwater fish
  • 48 species of dragonfly
  • 64 species of butterfly
  • More than 500 species of plant

Kopački Rit is also an important part of the Croatian-Hungarian Transboundary Biosphere Reserve Mura-Drava-Danube established by UNESCO in 2012.

White Water Lily (Nymphaea alba)

Other seasons

The floods start at the end of February or the beginning of March and last to the end of July or the beginning of August. The dry season lasts from August to February the following year, when most of the birds stay in the fishponds or rivers. The largest number of birds can be seen during the Spring and Autumn migrations, later during Summer.

Although the number of birds in Winter is less than in other seasons, thousands of wild geese and ducks arriving from West Siberia can be observed in the wider area of the Park.

Birding in Eastern Europe suggests that it is worth a visit at any time of year, though May is absolutely the best month.

The author also makes a safety warning: The surrounding area may not have been entirely cleared of mines from the 1990s conflict with Serbia, so do not leave the main roads or marked trails, or ignore warning signs.

Getting there

While travelling by car (or campervan as I did) is relatively easy, it is also possible to get there by public transport. Aim for Osijek – which has a railway station, then you’ll probably need a taxi for the last few kilometres.

If you use the Rome2Rio website for travel planning, be aware that one of their Kopacki Rit options takes you to the far side of the Danube (an expensive taxi journey from Osijek) and the other options take you beyond the visitor centre.

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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.

Keep reading

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.

Pin it for later

Vultures at the Hoces del Duratón

Why visit the Hoces del Duratón Natural Park?

Fantastic scenery looking into this 25km long miniature ‘Grand Canyon’ in the middle of Spain – Hoces = gorges/canyons

  • 400-500 pairs of red-billed chough
  • 500 pairs of griffon vultures
  • golden eagles, peregrine falcons
  • Summer visitors include Egyptian vultures, goshawks, booted and short-toed eagles, and bee-eaters
  • Blue rock thrush, eagle owl,
  • Herons, kingfishers and dippers along the river
  • Dupont’s lark and black wheatear on the plains above the gorge.

Easy walking along the river

Abundant flowers and butterflies in the spring and summer

About the Hoces del Rio Duratón Natural Park

Along some 27 kilometres of its course, the Duratón River cuts through the limestone rock, reaching a depth of over one hundred metres in some places. The cliffs hosts huge population of cliff-nesting birds. An area of over 5000 hectares was declared Natural Park in 1989 to protect these birds. It is a Special Protection Area under the European Birds Directive, and is included in the Natura 2000 network.

Hoces del Río Duratón Natural Park lies about an hour’s drive to the north of Segovia, or two hours north of Madrid.

The canyon of the Duraton has been dammed to provide water for Madrid.

How to enjoy nature at the Hoces del Duratón

Information centre in Sepúlveda

I’d usually start by visiting an information centre, but I was with an organised group and local guides, so did not need to visit. There are mixed reviews of the Casa del Parque de las Hoces del Río Duratón in the Iglesia de Santiago (separate to the Sepúlveda tourism information centre), and the website is in Spanish only. You have to go there to get a permit for hiking through the restricted areas in the vulture breeding season. They do provide maps, leaflets, and guides on-line as well as at the centre itself. Displays include information about the geology and nature of the park, and in particular of the griffon vulture, or the EL BUITRE LEONADO as it is called in Spanish.

From Sepúlveda it is a 20 minute hike to the Puente de Talcano – an old Roman Bridge – from where you can join the footpath alongside the river. The landscape here is pleasant, the walking easy, and there is plenty for the nature-watcher to linger over. The path goes 10km to the Puente de Villaseca where there is a cafe, and then you return via the same route.

The Puente de Villaseca.

Of course you can do the above walk in reverse, starting at the Puenta Vellaseca. Or you can take a shorter hike along the Senda de la Mollinilla further downstream from here. There is limited parking space, so our coach dropped us here, and went off somewhere else for most of the day.

It was amazing to get out of the coach and be face-to-face with a griffon vulture (above) – almost too close to photograph with a long lens. It was probably a young bird, inquisitive about the world around. When it flew off, it tried landing in a tree, and found itself stuck there amongst the branches for a while, but eventually managed to escape.

The area between the bridge and just beyond the cafe is more open, and is an excellent area for plants, butterflies and other insects.

View of the 12th century Romanesque chapel of San Frutos

The Hermitage of San Frutos

Watching the vultures at the Hoces del Duratón Natural Park is easy, even if you don’t want to hike along the river. Further downstream, and not far from the dam across the Rio Duraton, an ancient hermitage sits on a rock promontory. It overlooks a look in the part of the canyon and the views are fantastic. It is a popular place for general visitors, so a large car-parking area has been provided about 1km away.

Cardinal Butterfly Argynnis pandora

The track from the car park proved to be good for butterflies. This Cardinal was the biggest of them. Unfortunately at the end of October, most were looking quite worn and tatty. Nine species (including hermit, Bath white, mallow skipper and Spanish chalk-hill blue) during our short visit is surely an excuse to go back for more. There were few flowers to provide nectar at this time of year, but a visit earlier in the year will be productive.

But the real stars of the show were the griffon vultures. They flew above the cliffs, below the cliffs, and zoomed past at head height almost close enough to touch. Some cliffs still held nesting pairs – or at least the chicks that were now almost full grown. It was very hot, with hardly any wind, so the cliffs were baking. For the vultures, the best place to be was high up, circling in the thermals, reaching for the cooler air at higher altitudes.

A kettle of vultures, circling overhead

If you’ve never seen a griffon, or any other vulture, close-up, this is the place to come. You won’t see them fighting over carcasses because the food is out on the plains. They can travel vast distances in search of food, and will return to the nest with as much as they can carry in their crops (this is a chamber in the throat – so they don’t carry food in their talons/feet) to feed the chicks.

A dipper in the stream at the bottom of the canyon

In search of other birds

Three main habitats dominate the area – the riverine woodland, the cliffs, and the plains above the canyon. In the spring and summer, the woodland is full of a variety of birds. Even in October, we managed a respectable list here – including short-toed treecreeper and dipper.

The open plains have a more specialist range of birds, including Dupont’s, Calandra and Thekla larks, stone curlew, and several kinds of wheatear. There is little shade here, except in the patches of pine and juniper woodland. But these woodlands do provide for hoopoes, owls, Iberian (azure-winged) magpies, amongst many others.

Theckla lark keeping an eye out for danger

So there you have it

We were in Segovia for a conference, and this trip to watch vultures at the Hoces del Duratón Natural Park was organised as part of that. However, it is easy to visit by car, and day trips by coach are available from Segovia and from Madrid – check at the tourist information centres.

Obviously, visiting under you own steam means you can do more exploring. Our guide pointed out the general area for Dupont’s larks – best looked for in spring when they are singing. We just missed the Egyptian vultures, as they were on their way south for winter. For these and the other summer visitors, we need to visit earlier in the year.

However, note that the main vulture breeding areas are not freely accessible from January to June. Contact the visitor centre in advance if you are planning to visit at this time. Of course, you’ll still be able to see the vultures in the air at any time.

November to March can be decidedly chilly. May to September can be hot. Even early October was hot. As we headed back to the coach at 5pm, the heat was going out of the day. More and more people were streaming along the path to the Ermita de San Frutos to look at the vultures.

Useful resources:

  • Local tour guides – Vultour Naturaleza – I don’t know anything about them, but their website suggests they could be worth trying.
  • Wingspan Bird Tours do short break trips from the UK to the Madrid area. Again I don’t know anything about the company.

Two excellent books (I have them both) about birds and nature, including Duraton. Click on the covers for more information.

Buying books through these links brings a small commission, at no extra cost to you, that helps with the maintenance of this website.

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Related posts

A winter day at Santoña Marshes

The Santoña, Victoria and Joyel Marshes Natural Park is probably the best, and most easily accessible, wetland in north-western Spain.

The Green Belt of Segovia

Why Segovia?

The old city of Segovia is almost surrounded by a green belt of shallow ravines, with easy walking/running paths, through trees and along a river – a lovely sheltered way to enjoy the birds, butterflies and botany, not forgetting the frogs and lizards.

Segovia is home to a unique population of urban red-billed choughs. Over ninety pairs nest in buildings and natural sites, and several hundred come to roost in the city each night.

The Roman aqueduct is probably the best-known of the ancient monuments, but there is also the cathedral, the Alcazar and a host of other cultural (and culinary) delights to the city.

The Plaza Mayor and the Cathedral in Segovia. You can watch griffon and black vultures, and other birds of prey, while enjoying refreshments in the main square.

About Segovia

Segovia lies about 100km by road to the north-northwest of Madrid, along the Camino de Santiago de Madrid – the old pilgrim route from Madrid to Galicia. Segovia is 300m (1000ft) higher in altitude than Madrid, and thankfully therefore a few degrees cooler in summer.

It is an old city, dating back to pre-Roman times. It gives the impression of a hilltop town, yet only the cathedral shows above the surrounding landscape. That’s because the ‘hill’ is a promontory within a canyon. The city walls are integrated with the rock face. The Roman aqueduct towers across the lowest part of the old city. The cathedral is said to be the last Gothic Cathedral built in Spain (16th century). If the medieval Alcázar (fortress) of Segovia looks familiar, then you’ve probably seen the Walt Disney film ‘Cinderella’. The narrow streets give the place an ancient feeling – drive a car here at your peril! There is plenty to keep the history and culture buffs happy.

Inevitably there is a new part to the city, sprawling into the distance. And new industrial areas too. But tourism seems to be the main function.

Nature-watching in Segovia

Red-billed choughs coming to roost in the evening

Red-billed Choughs

We were in town for a three-day workshop about red-billed choughs. Hard to imagine that a city could hold more breeding pairs than the whole coast of Pembrokeshire (where we live). They breed and roost in many of the old buildings, including the cathedral and the aqueduct. During the day they are mostly out feeding in the surrounding countryside. Outside the breeding season (this was a warm October) they are most easily seen returning to roost in the evening. The main roosting site varies, but from the Plaza Mayor you can see if they are heading for the cathedral, further west to the Alcázar, or any of the other tall buildings.

And while you are looking up for choughs, there’s a good chance of seeing black and griffon vultures, booted eagles, peregrines, any other birds of prey in season. Of course, there are the ubiquitous house sparrows and town pigeons – the latter causing problems for the choughs as they also nest in cavities in buildings and people want to keep them out.

The Green Belt

The path through the green belt

According to an information board, the green belt of Segovia (formed by the Eresma and Clamores rivers) was declared an area of outstanding beauty in 1947. The Green Belt comprises a series of linked parks, gardens, cemeteries, rough ground, and the rivers Eresma and Clamores. A network of compacted gravel tracks run through the green belt, alongside the rivers, through the various parks, etc, so it is all very accessible. There are also a number of drinking water fountains en route.

We started at the Terrazas de San Valentin, on the south side of the city. Here, the Clamores river is not much more than a trickle, emerging from the rocks under Segovia. It continues through the Huertas de la Hontanilla, past St Andrews Gate, through scrub and shady trees.

Then through the Area natural del valle Clamores, from where you get a glimpse of the Alcázar high up on the city walls. Even higher up, there were griffon vultures drifting across. Then the Clamores becomes a larger river, shallow and slow, with Iberian water frogs at the edge.

Just beyond the Alcatraz, the Clamores joins the Eresma, the path goes along the south bank, over a bridge, and back along the north bank, through Pradera de San Marcos.

Further along is the old Royal Mint, with a weir across the river. In the background, the Alcazar dominates the skyline.
A kingfisher posed nicely – not at all bothered by people – and a few mallard inhabited the shadier areas.

The Alameda de Parral is more formally laid out, but is still home to plenty of butterflies, birds, and lizards. Beyond that, the Senda de los Molinos continues on the south side of the Eresma, or you can follow tracks closer to the old city. The most easterly part of the green belt is the Parque del Santo Angel de la Guarda around the cemetery.

St Mary of Parral’s Monastery from the city walls at St Cebrian’s Gate

Even in October, we found some 30 species of birds along the route. Not many plants in flower at this time, except for ivy. The powerful scent of its flowers attracted a variety of butterflies, bees, and other insects.

Other nearby places of natural interest

Shady woodlands in the gardens of the Palacio Real de la Granja de San Ildefonso

Palacio Real de La Granja de San Ildefonso

This Royal Palace lies some 12km south-east of Segovia – and as a popular destination, it is accessible by bus. The palace is huge, and the gardens are amazing. Tucked into the base of the Sierra de Guadarrama, this was a summer residence. The gardens are wooded – there are specimen trees several hundred years old – and the water features are extensive. This makes it a relatively cool shady place.

The Palace itself is only open in the summer, but the gardens are open all year round and provide a pleasant general nature-watching experience. There are plenty of eating places in the village, and we had an excellent meal of local dishes at a small restaurant opposite the Calle des Jardines.

Ski resort at the Puerto de Navacerrada in the Sierra de Guadarrama, south of Segovia.

Sierra de Guadarrama

Designated a National Park in 2013, some parts of the park are accessible by bus from Segovia. It is the fifth-largest National Park in Spain, covering nearly 34,000 hectares. The Puerto de Navacerrada (37km south of Segovia) is a small ski resort with plenty of parking space, and a variety of footpaths through the woodland or over the open mountain areas. Also accessible by train from Madrid or Segovia. We found rock buntings and citril finches here, and a few late mountain flowers. Mushroom-collecting is a popular past-time. Cerule’s Rock lizard – a local species – was much in evidence – and there was an abundance of grasshoppers and crickets.

Hoces del Rio Duraton Natural Park

Hoces del Rio Duraton Natural Park

An hour’s drive to the north of Segovia takes you to the village of Sepúlveda and the incredible Gorge of the Duraton River. From the Talcano Bridge there is a gentle path alongside the tree-lined river. The walls of the gorge got higher as we went, and we had occasional glimpses of griffon vultures above, and dipper in the river.

Read a post about watching the vultures here

From the big car and coach park closer to the Hermita de San Frutos (Patron Saint of Segovia), the view is quite different. A stark landscape with the river in the gorge below, and griffon vultures by the dozen, the score, no, by the hundred! And flying past within ten metres at times. If you want to photograph griffon vultures, this is the place to do it. Then there were the butterflies – unfortunately mostly at the end of their seasons and often looking quite tatty, but proof that this site would repay a much longer visit at some other time.

Griffon Vulture

So there you have it

I wouldn’t normally go nature-watching in a city, but did so here because of the chough event. It turned out to be much more than I had expected, and there is plenty more for a future visit. I would imagine that spring is a good time – before it gets too hot. There is plenty of scope for birds and butterflies, and probably for botanising too, along the paths of the Green Belt. We explored only a small part of this.

Segovia is also a good base for visiting sites further afield, though if you hire a car, the old city is not an easy place to drive in, with its narrow streets, semi-pedestrianised areas and one-way routes. Buses and taxis seem to be the best way to get around, and there are coach trips to more distant areas.

If you (or your travelling companions) are into history, culture and/or culinary delights, there is plenty to keep you occupied here.

Two excellent books (I have them both) about birds and nature, including the Segovia area. Click on the covers for more information.

Buying books through these links brings a small commission, at no extra cost to you, that helps with the maintenance of this website.

Related posts

Visiting Skomer Island in Pembrokeshire

Photo above: Looking across Jack Sound from the Deer Park.  The first lump of land is Middleholm.  Beyond that is Skomer, with the Mew Stone to the left (south), and the smaller Garland Stone to the right (north).

For a virtual tour of Skomer Island – read this article

Puffin carrying sand-eels back to the nest

What you’ll see there

Skomer Island, off the tip of Pembrokeshire in south-west Wales is a true wildlife haven.  With no ground predators such as foxes, rats or stoats, the island provides a safe haven for ground-nesting birds such as puffins and Manx shearwaters, as well as for other seabirds that nest out in the open.  In the autumn is is a safe place for grey seals to have their pups.

Best time for seabirds – May – July, though fulmars and shearwaters are still feeding chicks until September

Best time for other birds – April-May and August-October migration periods when anything can turn up.

Best time for seals – can be seen in all months, but pups are born between August and November.

Best time for flowers – May – August

Best time for insects – May – September


About Skomer

Grey seals hauled out for an afternoon nap on a rock in South Haven

How to get there

It’s only a ten-minute boat crossing to reach Skomer.

2021 – Due to Covid restrictions, you now have to book in advance. Details are here. If you don’t have a ticket, you are unlikely to get on the boat.

Parking is still at Martin’s Haven National Trust car park, so you need either a National Trust membership card, or some cash.

As well as puffins, guillemots, razorbills and Manx shearwaters, there are other species of bird breeding on Skomer – great black-back, lesser black-back and herring gulls, kittiwakes, cormorants, shags, oystercatchers, curlew (but only one or two pairs), land birds such as wheatears, meadow pipits, rock pipits, blackbirds, jackdaw, crow, raven, chough, and raptors such as peregrine, buzzard, little owl and short-eared owl.

The Pembrokeshire Islands are home to about half a million pairs of Manx Shearwaters. These birds are nocturnal on land (to avoid predation by gulls) and are most easily seen by either staying overnight on Skomer (contact the Wildlife Trust for South and West Wales) or by taking an evening “Seabird Spectacular” on the Dale Princess.

Rabbits, woodmice, common shrews and the Skomer vole (a subspecies of bank vole) all live on the island, while around 150-200 grey seals have their pups on the beaches each autumn.

Manx Shearwaters gathering offshore, waiting to return to their nests after dark

My articles elsewhere about Skomer

Watching puffins and other seabirds

Skomer in May


Other articles about Wales

Flamingos at Castro Marim

Summer in the Algarve is hot

Summer in the Algarve is hot – temperatures in the forties in the shade – and any breeze is welcome though even that is likely to come from the hot Sahara to the south. Very occasionally, it rains.

Early mornings can be cool, even overcast and grey. Carpenter bees and bumblebees buzz around whatever flowers they can find. Purple bugloss Echium plantagineum, thyme Thymus spp, wild carrot Daucus carota, sea daffodil Pancratium maritimum, Sea Hollies Eryngium spp to name a few. But most seem to have gone to seed, or shrivelled up in the heat.

Most of the butterflies are browns – meadow brown, wall brown, southern gatekeeper, speckled wood, skippers – species that depend on grasses for the caterpillar food plants. The occasional flash of colour from an Adonis blue, a swallowtail, or even a Bath white is welcome.

Birds, too, are best looked for in the early morning – before the heat haze turns them into misshapen ripples of colour in the distance. On the saltpans and estuaries waders are returning south – the first wave being those adults that have failed to breed successfully and are now going south without youngsters in tow. Another few weeks and the family groups will appear.

Dragonflies mass around the shrinking pools and diminishing streams. The narrow bodies of these colourful jewels can be surprisingly hard to see amongst the browning stems and leaves of plants.

European pond terrapins coast themselves with mud to prevent sunburn – and as the mud dries, the evaporation of water keeps them cool.

Daytime is siesta time – for wildlife as well as humans. Nothing wants to move if it doesn’t have to. Out on the sand dunes, the heat is accentuated by the fragrance of curry – from the yellow flowers of the curry plant Helichrysum italicum. Holes, burrows, houses, anywhere that provides shade is cool – comparatively speaking. Sandhill snails Theba pisana move up the stems of plants to aestivate (wait out the hot dry period) away from the heat of the ground.

Inland, there is still a variety of small birds skulking in the olive groves, citrus groves and wherever else they can find shade and food. Finches appear magically as the heat goes out of the day, to feed on grass and thistle seeds. At dusk nightjars and owls still call in defence of their breeding territories.

Yes, Summer in the Algarve is hot. Very hot. And it’s probably best left to the tourists.

If there was a book like this for every area I visited, I’d be a very happy camper. It takes you through the year in fortnightly chunks, with information about plants, birds, invertebrates, places, etc, etc.

It is a general guide to the most obvious bits of natural history, so if you are a specialist in birds, or botany, or butterflies, you’ll need a specialist book for that, and this will help with everything else.