Birds and nature
Birdwatching is becoming a passion not only for the devoted biologist, but also to “common people” who love to travel, explore and mix nature with history. Such a place is Lake Kerkini, situated in the Macedonia region of Greece, just 40 kilometers from the border with Bulgaria.
The lake is artificial, created by the locals in the 1930s, to stop the constant flooding from the Struma (Strymon) river. In 1975 the area is announced as a National park and now it is included in the Natura 2000 network, which aims to protect the natural areas in the European Union. The Greek name of the Lake is Kerkini, but the Bulgarian is Budkovsko lake, and because of the closeness of the two nationalities you may hear the local people call it both ways.
This lake is the most important bird stop for most birds who migrate from Europe to Africa or the Middle east. Its location is a point where birds to and from the Balkans, the Hungarian steppes and the Aegean and Black sea meet and rest, before they continue their journey. The huge variety of species has turned the lake into a wonderful place for birdwatching and tourism, but despite the number of visitors every year, the nearby village and the lake itself have not turned into a crazy tourist attraction. The local people have managed to keep the fragile balance between their normal life and business and the nature, turning this place into pure bird paradise.
There are two ways to reach the lake. The first and most probably the easiest one is to use a travel agency and book a trip. A lot of tourist agencies in Greece, Bulgaria and Macedonia offer good and informative journeys to the lake and believe me – it’s worth it. You can even book a two day stay in the area and visit the local historical sights, visit the village’s Taverna and try some traditional Greek food – salad, olives, and fish and taste the famous Retsina wine (its special aroma comes from the pine resin that’s put into it).
The second way is by car. If you travel from far, book a flight to Thessaloniki and rent a car to get to Kerkini (about 100 km). If you are traveling from Bulgaria or Republic of Macedonia the drive takes just a few hours. The Bulgarian road is following the Struma river curves, while the one coming from Republic of Macedonia goes around the Doiran lake. Keep in mind that Greece has a road tax since last year, so be prepared with some euro! When you get off the highway there are lot of brown signs that show you the way to the lake, so you cannot get lost in the little villages you will pass. A GPS is a good idea, but not a necessity.
The watching points
Three are the main attractions around the lake. The main one of course are the boats. The second one is the Struma mouth. And the third one is the Dam. My advice is to try to reach the area of the lake as early in the morning as possible.
First go to the river mouth and take a walk on the levee. When you enter the village called Vyronia turn left on the traffic light (it’s the only one and there is a brown sign) and then follow the signs when you enter the small village – Megalochori. Park your car near the tourist stop and continue on foot. On your right side there is a small canal where a lot of birds swim, rest, play or eat. If you are lucky you will have the chance to see the coypu, which lives in the water and is not a local species. On your left side you will see the wide territories of the Macedonia region – one of the main agricultural areas of Greece. Take the morning walk there listening and watching the birds, because the ones you will see there you will not see in the lake later. Most probably you will be lucky to hear and see the local buffalos. They are a type of cattle, very different from the Chinese water buffalos, or the bisons. They are not aggressive, but I would not like to meet them face to face. They usually stay on the other side of the canal and are guarded by friendly dogs, which will stay your best friends forever if you give them some bread or even better – a salami!
The river mouth
Then take a ride around the lake to the Dam (the village is called Lithótopos). The road literally passes in front of the gates of the Dam. There is a good place to stop on both sides of the bridge, so do not stop on the bridge, because it’s a narrow one. You can leave the car there and take a look at the whole lake, or drive a little further and go to the viewpoint pavilion.
From the Dam the road will lead you to the Kerkini village and port. The distance is only 23 km, but the road follows the silhouette of the lake and has a lot of turns. Every now and then there is a place where you can stop and take a look at the lake, the beautiful Belasica mountain, the wide fields and the olive trees. When you reach the Kerkini port take a boat trip in the lake. No matter if you are just a few people or a whole group there will be no problem to hire a boat. The prize is 8-10 euros and the journey is about an hour. The boat captains do not speak very good English, but are full of information and do their best to tell you everything they know. I would advise you to take a jacket or even gloves and hat, because even if the weather is hot, in the lake there is a slight breeze which gives you chills. Keep your life vest on and enjoy the view.
The lake is a home or a rest stop for about 450 species of birds. About 140 of them nest in or around the lake, 170 species migrate and 140 spent the winter there. Depending on the season you can see different types of birds.
If you visit the lake in spring (April-May), when the level of the water is high the boats will take you to the pelican’s pontoon. These two artificial “islands” are made for the pelicans to rest and nest. In the lake you can see two kind of them – the Dalmatian pelican and the Great white pelican.
If you go to Kerkini in early summer (June) and the water levels are still high enough the boats will take you further in the marches, where the birds nest. There you will have the chance to see all kind of ducks, herons and seagulls, kingfishers, cormorants and many more, even the buffalos that swim in the reeds and by the boats.
If you go birdwatching in winter (December-February) you will be lucky to see the pink flamingo flocks, which come from Spain and Africa. At this time of the year the water is only 50-70 cm deep, which is perfect for the birds, but not for the boats. The flamingos stay in the upper part of the lake where the boats will take you, while the pelicans go down and you will find them by the Dam. The rest of the birds can be seen all around the lake and the area.
If you are a crazy birdwatcher you know what to take and what to leave at home. If you are not, here are a few useful tips:
Take – a binocular, a camera, a jacket, a hat, sunglasses, good shoes, water and food. Although you will find good places to eat in the village, do take some sandwiches and a bottle of water, because there is neither fast food, nor a restaurant at the port (there is a WC) or at the viewpoints.
Leave – the big bags and handbags – they are not very useful on the boat and are a pain when you put the life vest on, the high heels and the skirt/dress – they are quite uncomfortable while getting in/out of the boat and climbing the viewpoints, keep your phone in a zipped pocket and try not to drop anything in the lake.