Bird watching in Greece

If you feel like you’re being watched, you probably are. Greece is the sanctuary of Dalmatian pelicans – hulking birds with a wingspan of up to 3.5m, a ruffled feather cap, and an unnerving habit of fixing onlookers with an uncompromising stare. That fierce look scooped an award in 2019, when it starred in the winning shot of the Bird Photographer of the Year.

These Dalmatian pelicans are the rising stars of the Greek bird world – because while their numbers steadily decrease worldwide, with threats ranging from overfishing to water pollution, here in Greece the Dalmatian pelicans are thriving.

Introducing: Lake Kerkini

For years, south-easterly Lesbos island has been the one and only for Greek bird watching vacations, thanks to its position smack-bang in the middle of three continents’ bird migratory routes.
“Lesbos has been famous for many decades,” says Chantel Kyriakopoulou-Beuvink, founder of our Greek wildlife tour specialists Natural Greece. “Many will know Lesbos as a birders’ island, and they flock there.” But according to Chantel, there’s a new kid on the block:Lake Kerkini is more of a new destination compared with Lesbos, but recently it’s very popular – and that reason is that the Bird Photographer of the Year got her picture there.”
Lake Kerkini is on the border of Bulgaria and North Macedonia. It’s paradise.
Lake Kerkini – “paradise”, according to Chantel – is a protected wetland in northern Greece that’s well on its way to becoming a top birding spot for twitchers hoping for a glimpse of Dalmatian pelicans. Like many wildlife success stories, their thriving population here – as numbers sink globally – is no accident. The biggest breeding sites are in Greece, and excellent conservation measures mean that they’ve become one of the most protected birds in the country.

Lake Kerkini holds one of the largest colonies – around 200-300 birds. This is largely because conservationists created a floating nest site protected from predators and humans. It attracts migrating pelicans, but also has a hefty resident population. “They’re not an endemic species,” explains Chantel, “but they’ve very limited distribution. You really only travel to a few places in the world to spot them.”
They have a graceful way of flying… When I see them, I always think there should be classical music in the background.
The best bird watching vacations in Greece will take you out on a boat trip to the pelican nesting site (keeping a respectable distance, of course; you don’t mess with a pelican stare – or the bill). They’re not hard to miss, either, Chantel adds: “It’s one of the biggest birds in this world. They have a huge wingspan and it’s really spectacular to see them fly. They have a graceful way of flying… When I see them, I always think there should be classical music in the background.”

Your tour won’t just focus on Dalmatian pelicans – it’ll zoom out to the 300-plus other species that use the area as a gathering place. Some come and go with the seasons (Lake Kerkini is a big stopover for migrant species between Africa and Northern Europe) others (like the Dalmatian pelicans) stick it out all year.

Black and white storks swing by in summer, along with Levant sparrowhawks, white-eyed ferruginous ducks and Portuguese flamingos. You can see the autumn migration in September. Lesser-fronted white geese, merlins, red-crested pochards, monochrome smews and scaups, and bulbous-headed goldeneyes travel to winter here. It’s also when the Dalmatian pelicans pull on their winter plumage. (“It’s like they went to the hair salon,” says Chantel’s colleague, guide Dimitra Christidi.) And then in spring, you’ll get a lively line-up of pygmy cormorants, glossy ibises, spoonbills and herons nesting in the reedbeds.
Forests and fields cup the lake, so it’s not uncommon to see kites and eagles winging their way between one hunting ground and the next. Six woodpecker species drill away at the riparian forests, too: Syrian; grey-headed; great-spotted; lesser-spotted; green; and middle-spotted. The forests swoop up to the Kerkini and Marvovouni Mountains – the stomping ground of mammals with rangy territories: grey wolves, jackals, wildcats and roe deer. Herds of water buffalo pilgrimage to the edge of Lake Kerkini, too.

Bird crossroads

You don’t have to stick to Lake Kerkini; the whole of Greece is a crossroads for birds. The country is at the junction of three continents, directly in the middle of the migratory passage of birds that travel between Africa, Europe and Asia. As such, it’s a country of surprises as unexpected species pause to take a breather or decide to settle in a safe spot. Most bird watching vacations still head to Lesbos, where many unusual birds on their way to Turkey and Palestine stop to rest on the island.

Our top Bird watching Vacation

Birdwatching vacation in Greece

Birdwatching vacation in Greece

Birdwatching in the Greek Dodecanese islands

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Locals leading the way

Often, it’s not the birds that are the real highlight of bird watching vacations in Greece – it’s your guide. “We have excellent, excellent guides,” says Chantel. “They’re basically locals from the Northern Greece area. I daresay we have the very best. They’re highly knowledgeable when it comes to the birds you see… they can spot not just by looking, but by listening.”

Dimitra Christidi is one of those bird guides. “The bird guide knows where to find the species,” she says, “but also which time of the day is best, how to approach it, how to spend your time in the field – this is also very important. The birding community is not very big in Greece, so we all know each other. Since I’m a birder as well, I have to say that our companions in Northern Greece are actually quite the best.”
If they can’t find it then nobody can.
Most bird watching vacations are tailor made. When you travel with a specialist vacation company, they’ll be happy to tweak their recommended itinerary to your liking – especially if you’re a photographer or you have a wish list of birds you’d like to see.
And don’t be shy about asking questions – it’s no secret that bird watchers often know exactly what they want from a birding vacation. “This is open to all kinds of travelers… right up to fanatic birders who have a specific list,” says Chantel. “They tick the list and say, right, I want to see these four species. So when you have a specific woodpecker the guide knows to go up to mountains, because it’s surrounded by forests. You know, if they can’t find it then nobody can.”
You’ll also learn about how the birds live peacefully alongside the villages in the bird sanctuaries. Fishing is small-scale here and wildlife organisations keep captains informed about the extra income that travelers can bring on responsible bird watching trips. Your guide will also make sure that you – and your boat captain or driver – are well-versed in that particular region’s code of conduct. Take the Dalmatian pelicans: they might look fearsome, but even steady populations like those at Lake Kerkini are considered vulnerable. It’s all about balancing what you’d like to see with the birds’ needs – and usually putting the birds’ need to hunt, sleep and breed in peace above your need to spot them. Great guides know how to strike that balance.

Tips from our travelers

“Prepare for all weathers and if you are going to the Evros Delta remember the bug repellent.” – Emma Sparkes

“The most memorable part of the vacation was having a friendly and knowledgeable guide to accompany us through our adventure. The boat ride on Lake Kerkini was particularly exciting as we got close-up views of birds in their nesting environment. Wear comfortable clothes in layers as the weather can range from cool to warm. The scenery is so beautiful you will want to bring a camera.” – Angelo Angelis
The views were excellent and range of birds includes some of the most spectacular in Europe – pelicans, storks, four types of heron, crane, glossy ibis, flamingo, spoonbill, hoopoes and lots more... Take a camera!
– Richard Aubery
“The boat trip on Lake Kerkini was wonderful and provided great views of the thousands of birds there. I'd recommend this trip to people new to bird watching. The views were excellent and range of birds includes some of the most spectacular in Europe – pelicans, storks, four types of heron, crane, glossy ibis, flamingo, spoonbill, hoopoes and lots more... Take a camera! The guesthouse owner makes an effort to spread out the financial benefits by involving other restaurants. He’s part of his local community and tries to demonstrate to local people that preserving the environment for wildlife can benefit the community.” – Richard Aubery

“Even though the trip was perfect in all ways the experience can be even better when you manage to hit the exact bird migration peak (springtime [for Lake Kerkini])...” – Wilco Veldhuizen
The boat ride on Lake Kerkini was particularly exciting as we got close-up views of birds in their nesting environment.
– Angelo Angelis
Photo credits: [Page banner: Philippos Katsiyiannis/Natural Greece] [Lake Kerkini: Paps198011] [Pelicans flying: Antoniosandrean] [Jackal: Christos Kotselis/Natural Greece] [Guides birdwatching: DraganSimicboat/Natural Greece] [Traveler quote 1: Yannisfos] [Traveler quote 2: Konstantinos Arvanitopoulos]