Lesvos has been known for its birding for 30-plus years. But its wider plant- and wildlife-watching is also outstanding. An excellent destination, right at the edge of Europe, it is little wonder that nature tourism is now the key activity in the tourist shoulder-season.
No photos to offer of mammals, but watching another Lesvos exclusive (in European terms), Persian Squirrel, sunbathe on a rock – face down, limbs outstretched, broad smile on its chops – was a clear highlight, but nevertheless outshone by three Rock Mouse (aka Eastern broad-toothed Field Mouse). One night I loitered for a few hours beside Lesser Mole-rat molehills, but in vain. That would have been too good.
New for me were Dark Spreadwing (a saline-waterbody species, at two sites: the first odonate I have ever digiscoped!), Winter Damselfly and Southern Skimmer. Scarce Blue-tailed Damselfly, Beautiful Demoiselle, Red-veined Darter and some relatively distant Lesser (or perhaps Vagrant) Emperors bulked out the list.
In late April, I was fortunate enough to explore parts of Lesvos (Greece) with Wildlife Travel. It was peak birding time – as testified by almost everyone on our outbound plane carrying a camera bag or wearing khaki – but our group had broad interests, so we stuck to a preplanned, gorgeously varied itinerary and saw what we saw, rather than chasing migration. (That said, I thank Graham Etherington, Mark Golley, Simon Mitchell, Lynette Nicholson and Howard Vaughan for sharing real-time gen...) Wildlife Travel leader Philip Precey has done a detailed trip report, and numerous photos are on the Wildlife Travel Flickr gallery. In this blog, I restrict myself to some personal highlights: if I did everything, I’d be writing (and you’d be reading) for days…
It's hard to time a trip to Lesvos perfectly for orchids, as Jan van Lent’s blog illustrates. If you want to be baffled by Ophrys (bee orchid types), come in March or early April (although you’ll have to go via Athens as we were on the earliest direct flights from the UK). But if you want the star, Komper’s Orchid Himantoglossum comperianum, you need to visit in mid- or late May: thanks to Sean Cole and his contacts, we had precise gen for several plants, but failed to find even rosettes. We were also a little too early for Holmboe’s Butterfly Orchid, Holy Orchid and Toothed Orchid, all of which were in bud. Plenty of good flowering orchids were seen, fortunately, although numbers were low: Ophrys (sicula) lutea, O. mammosa, Naked Man Orchid, a decent group of Monkey Orchid, Provence Orchid, Sword-leaved Helleborine, the stately Violet Limnodore, Four-spotted Orchid, Green-winged Orchid, and many Serapia bergonii (a tongue orchid).
The most staggering thing for me about Lesvos was the plantlife. Riverbanks, roadsides, pathways and the back of beaches were a riot of colour. And it wasn’t just the spectrum that thrilled, but the diversity. At one site, Philip identified 20 species of flowering plants in a single square metre. At another, he picked 10 species of clover within five minutes. Picking plants for the botanical podium is hard but, orchids aside, I’d probably plump for the large fritillary Fritillaria pontica, the throng of Peacock Anemones Anemone hortensis pavonina, and the scarlet tulip Tulipa orphanidea.
Buoyed by my Adder experience shortly before departing for Lesvos, I was salivating at the possibility of Sand Boa (Europe’s only constrictor) and Ottoman’s Viper. Unfortunately, the cool nights and daytime temperatures not exceeding 20C didn’t seem to be enough, and the only snakes we saw were a glimpsed Dice Snake and several of the wondrous Worm Snake, definitely a highlight of the trip. Lizards were good, with Starred Agama (an Asian dragon, here at the western edge of its range) cresting tall rocks, Snake-eyed Lacertids scuttling beside paths, and Balkan Green Lizards frequenting half-shady areas. Among shelled reptiles, we had a single Spur-thighed Tortoise, but couldn’t discern a European Pond Terrapin among the masses of Balkan Terrapins. Amphibians were fine, with ample Levant Water Frogs (another eastern species that only nudges into Europe) and – particularly pleasingly, after two nights spent hearing but not seeing them – Eastern Tree Frog.
I ran a twin actinic trap at both hotels. At the first, it was really too cold, while the second overlooked a harbour so I think we were lucky to entice any moths at all from the nearest habitat. Although numbers were low, quality was interesting. Of those species I have identifies so far, several species were familiar as migrants to or recent colonists of Britain, e.g. White-speck, Gem, Cosmopolitan, Kent Black Arches, Channel Islands Pug (I think: a tamarisk specialist), Portland Ribbon Wave, Hummingbird Hawk-moth, Delicate, Rusty-dot Pearl, Diamond-back and Passenger. Others were Mediterranean species that (as far as I know) have not reached the UK: ‘Tamarisk Grey’ Clytie syriaca, the mocha Cyclophora ariadne and the remarkable noctuid Eutelia adulatrix (my animal of the trip, tbh). The wing of a dead Giant Peacock Moth, found mid-town, teased us, whereas Cream-spot Tiger was an unabashed crowdpleaser.
A nice selection of butterflies included a few species new to me: the huge Bath White, the exceptional Eastern Festoon, Eastern Dappled White, Green-underside Blue, Nettle-tree Butterfly and Spotted Fritillary. We also enjoyed nice views of Swallowtail, Scarce Swallowtail, Cleopatra, Long-tailed Blue etc. We appeared to be too late for False Apollo, sadly.
Minibeasts were superlative on this trip. Arachnids included a huge female ladybird spider sp. Eresus cf walckenaeri, a red-backed jumping spider Philaeus chrysops (fairly common) and several Mediterranean Banded ScorpionMesobuthus gibbosus. Fellow stingers included a velvet ant Mutillasp. and plenty of Megarian Centipedes Scolopendra cingulata. Violet carpenter bees Xylocopasp.were common, and several Egyptian Locusts wowed us with their size. Beetles included a stunning, large rose chafer Protaetia cf speciosissimo, an amazing hairy orange bumble scarab Pygopleurus vulpes (always in poppy heads) and a hefty Peach Flathead Borer Capanodis cf tenebrionis. And heaven knows what we failed to identify...
I had not previously been nearer Turkey than Crete, so there was plenty of potential interest (meaning world ticks, essentially with Asian origins) for me on Lesvos. Sadly we only heard Krüper’s Nuthatch (at two sites: Achladeria and Sanatorio) but could not get even a glimpse. And our itinerary precludes trying for Rüppell’s and Olive-tree warblers, sites for both of which were found too late in our trip. But with a haul that included Cinereous Bunting, Spur-winged Lapwing, Sombre Tit, Western Rock Nuthatch, Chukar and Eastern Bonelli’s Warbler as world/Western Pal ticks, that didn’t matter overly. Throw in a back-up cast of Eleonora’s Falcon, Pallid Harrier, Scops Owls, displaying Isabelline Wheatear, Cretzschmar’s Bunting, abundant Eastern Black-eared Wheatears (damn, those birds are good!), several Masked Shrikes, Scopoli’s & Yelkouanshearwaters, plus neat migrants such as Collared Pratincoles, Red-footed Falcon, Black Kite (a Lesvos rarity), White-winged Black Terns, Red-throated Pipits, Collared Flycatcher etc, and you have material enough for a most pleasing birding experience.