Wednesday, 7 May 2014

Southern Cyprus: April 12th - 22nd 2014

I recently spent 10 days in southern Cyprus from 12th to 22nd April, based in Pafos on the south-western coast.  Located in the far corner of the eastern Mediterranean with Turkey to the north, Lebanon and Syria to the east and Egypt to the south Cyprus is a tantalising location for mixing it amongst many species that are rare or scarce in the UK plus the endemic breeding species and races.  Due to its more southerly location, spring migration through Cyprus tends to peak in early April and this was evident during our time there, with a marked reduction in the number of birds towards the end of the stay.  Considering this was a holiday with the Mrs it was never going to be a full-on birding extravaganza so I was pleasantly surprised to encounter 114 species during our visit!

We flew with EasyJet from Manchester to Pafos and hired a car.  Driving is on the left, which is handy for British and Irish birders, but I would recommend anyone doing a birding trip to hire a 4x4 as many of the tracks to the birding sites are pretty rough going (even impassable) in a standard car.

Dave Gosney’s ‘Finding Birds in Southern Cyprus’ (cheers Rhys) and ‘Birdwatching in Cyprus; a brief guide for visitors to the island’ (a free booklet that I found on the Internet - not sure who the author is but it was a great resource) were very useful for gen, although inevitably a little out-dated in places now.  I also gleaned some information from several others who had visited previously – cheers all (and special thanks to Andy for returning Si’s DVD in time!).  The weather was excellent on the whole (perhaps too good for any big falls) with the exception of 1.5 days when it rained to remind us of home.

Day 1: 13/04/14
After arriving at our Pafos hotel at 10pm the previous night today was spent exploring Pafos, starting with a morning visit to the famous Pafos headland UNESCO World Heritage Site.  Much of the published gen for accessing this site refers to ‘secret’ openings in the perimeter fence which can be used to save spending on the entrance fee (4 Euros).  I failed to find any openings (just evidence of previous holes that had been secured), but I was happy to contribute to the upkeep of this fascinating site by paying the entrance fee.

En route to the headland we passed through a small piece of land that had been left to the flowers and holm oaks, one of which contained a smart male Collared Flycatcher.  Barn Swallows were present in large numbers and included a possible ‘transitiva’ type, showing more rufous underparts than its congeners.  Sardinian Warblers showed well and were common throughout, as did a couple of Spanish Sparrows (these being much scarcer than the very common House Sparrows).  Walking around the mosaics it soon became apparent that pipits and wagtails were on the move.  20+ Red-throated Pipits were feeding around the ruins, many in their smart summer plumage, and there were smaller numbers of Tree Pipits; the calls of these two species were to become familiar sounds over the next 10 days.  A mobile flock of flava wagtails was feeding among the wildflowers in the Odeon area and contained numerous feldegg (Black-headed) along with thunbergi (Grey-headed), ‘dombrowskii’ types and nominate flava (Blue-headed), providing a great education in all things flava.  Other birds of note included a Red-rumped Swallow and 2 singing Nightingales.

 Pafos headland

A walk along the waterfront in search of some lunch produced 3 Squacco Herons and 2 Little Egrets looking out of place as they rested on some rocks in the harbour.  Returning to the headland later in the afternoon there seemed to have been an arrival of wheatears represented by several Northerns alongside at least 3 ‘Eastern’ Black-eareds for comparison.  Whinchats were moving too with at least 5 seen.  Four more Collared Flycatchers (two males and two females) were also showing well and giving away their presence with their distinctive ‘eehp’ call.  70+ Glossy Ibis hugged the coastline as they flew north-west in a tight flock.
 Collared Flycatcher was virtually the first bird of the trip!

 Red-throated Pipits were one of the commonest migrants, along with smaller numbers of Black-eared Wheatears

Day 2: 14/04/14
Today we headed to the Akamas peninsula on the north-west tip of southern Cyprus.  From the popular tourist trap of Aphrodite’s Pool (a fairly underwhelming wooded pool among the rocks) we walked the 6km Aphrodite Trail (much more satisfying!) and also called in at the Smigies picnic area and Agias Minas chapel near Neo Chorio.

Just after setting off on the walk the first Chukars were heard on the opposite side of the valley, but refused to show.  A little further up a monotonous buzzing song gave away the first Cyprus Wheatear, with at least 14 more logged along the walk; I’d heard these were easy but hadn’t expected them to be so numerous.  While watching the pair of wheatears a larger black and white bird zipped across and landed on some Thorny Gorse to reveal its identity as a Masked Shrike.  The local wheatears weren’t so keen on its presence though and soon started mobbing it.  Towards the end of the walk we passed a camp site which is renowned for turning up good numbers of migrants and this proved to be true.  An Eastern Olivaceous Warbler was singing and showing nicely in some Tamarisks as we entered the site and plenty of birds were making good use of the trees dotted around the camp site, especially ficedula flycatchers (10+ Collared and 5+ Pied Flycatchers) along with 6 Tree Pipit, 3 Whinchat, a female Whitethroat, a Wood Warbler and a Woodchat Shrike.

A picnic stop at Smigies resulted in a Cyprus Wheatear showing well around the picnic tables and another Masked Shrike.  I noticed the bird fly in to a nearby pine and start making some harsh calls before flying towards a branch and feed its young in a nest opposite where I was standing.  The nest was surprisingly exposed on the bough but it certainly wasn’t obvious to see unless you knew it was there.  Agias Minas chapel proved to be very good for Red-rumped Swallows with plenty feeding above and a couple of Turtle Dove were also heard.  On the drive back a Hoopoe flew across the road and 3 Rollers were back in, perched on overhead wires.

 Cyprus Wheatears were very easy in any upland habitat - this one was at Smigies picnic site

 This Masked Shrike didn't go down as well with the locals as it did with me!

This camp site near Aphrodite's Pool was excellent for migrant passerines

  Masked Shrike nest at Smigies

Day 3: 15/04/14
We started off at Asprokremnos dam with a visit to the famous Aspro Pools and then Nata Ford.  For the afternoon we headed inland to the Troodos mountains.  In the evening we visited Mandria beach, another good migrant spot at the right times.

The Aspro Pools are well known for producing Little and Baillon’s Crakes during migration, but not during our visit as they were completely dry.  Indeed many of the smaller wetland sites were dry, as were the rivers that feed them.  As compensation 2 Chukar flew from some scrub and the first Cyprus Warbler showed well as it gave its scratchy song by the track.  I only saw 3 of these smart Sylvias during the whole trip, with Sardinians being much more common, and they might be in trouble if they continue to be out-competed by the Sardinians.

Nata Ford was mostly dry but a single Wood Sandpiper foraged in some remaining puddles.  The main target here was Black Francolin and I soon heard one belching out its call from a distant field.  I waited a while to no avail, but an Eastern Olivaceous Warbler gave good views as it sang nearby.  Other migrants included a male Blackcap and a singing Reed Warbler.  Returning to the car I heard another Francolin which sounded much closer.  This one did the right thing and perched prominently on a rocky outcrop giving prolonged views and allowing full appreciation of its intricate markings.

 This Black Francolin showed well at Nata Ford

We headed up into the Troodos mountains for the afternoon, which are high enough to receive snow in the winter months.  There are several endemic races of birds on Cyprus, many of which can be found around the village of Troodos, such as Jay, Coal Tit, Crossbill and Short-toed Treecreeper.  Parking in Troodos Square the first of these to be seen was Jay, with several scavenging around a picnic area.  I thought that the higher-pitched call was perhaps a more distinctive difference than their plumage when compared to other European Jays.  We took the Atalante Trail leading from Troodos Square among the Black Pines and Junipers.  This was an excellent trail (although at approximately 18km long is not a handy circular to start in the afternoon; we turned round after a couple of hours!)  A Short-toed ‘Dorothy’s Treecreeper called from an adjacent pine and eventually showed itself.  Coal Tits were pretty common, looking much more sooty-grey than the Cypriotes depicted in Collins.  Along the walk we flushed 3 Chukars and 5+ Woodlarks while small groups of Crag Martins and both Common and Pallid Swifts fed overhead.  Cyprus Wheatears were plentiful once again and the only Blackbirds, Song Thrushes and Wrens of the trip were seen up here.  A female Masked Shrike showed well low in a pine and a Hoopoe was heard.  Just before returning to Troodos Square the final target bird showed in the form of 2 Common Crossbills, demonstrating the greyer plumage tone than most European adult birds.

 Troodos Jay

Before returning to the hotel that evening we called in at Mandria beach, with 5 more Chukar seen in a roadside field en route.  The highlight at Mandria was a flock of at least 25 Red-throated Pipits feeding behind the beach and allowing excellent scope views.  Associating with the flock was a mighty fine male Citrine Wagtail, an Isabelline Wheatear and a thunbergi (Grey-headed) Yellow Wagtail.  Further along 20 Short-toed Larks were feeding.  A nice way to end the day!

This habitat behind the beach at Mandria was great for pipits, larks, wheatears and wagtails

Day 4: 16/04/14
Today we followed the coast north-west to Agios Georgios and Lara Beach, and then called in for the Cyprus Scops Owls on the Mavrokolympos Dam road at dusk.

Cape Drepanon at Agios Georgios is another great site for migrants as well as offering seawatching potential.  This combined with it being a generally nice spot meant we made a few return visits over the holiday.  Migrants encountered in the morning included 3 Tawny Pipits, 2 ‘Eastern’ Black-eared Wheatears and a decent flock of flava wagtails, which contained the usual suspects but also a potential ‘superciliaris’; generally considered an intergrade between feldegg and beema/flava and resembling feldegg but with prominent white supercilia.  Two Woodchat Shrikes were also present with 1 singing its strange, wild warble.  The first Ortolan Buntings were seen too, with a small group of 5 pottering about.  I also stumbled across another male Black Francolin here , perched on an earth mound as I rounded a corner, but unsurprisingly deciding not to linger when it saw me.

Getting to the Lara Beach turtle hatchery involved a long, slow drive along an unsurfaced road – definitely one for a 4x4!  The beach is used by Loggerhead and Green Turtles to lay their eggs, but they don’t visit until at least May and today it was being enjoyed by a handful of beach-goers instead.  The slow drive yielded some more good birds though including a flock of around 20 Ortolans, a Hoopoe and the first Spotted Flycatchers.  A flock of about 25 Purple Herons flapped northwards along the coast and a large, brown bird that Mil spotted proved to be a female Montagu’s Harrier, which showed well briefly.

As I hadn’t yet connected with any Long-legged Buzzards we headed inland a bit to Theletrou where a pair are supposed to breed and be fairly easy to see.  True enough on leaving the car I was soon on to a Long-leg as it soared above a small ravine.  It perched up on a dead tree trunk allowing nice scope views before it sailed off once again giving good views of the salient features and surprising me by how much it resembled Rough-legged Buzzard.

Returning to Agios Georgios later in the afternoon I opted to try a seawatch.  The very quiet spells were punctuated with a flock of 35 Glossy Ibis travelling north-west offshore, a distant large shearwater presumed to be Scopoli’s and an Arctic Skua that appeared to be in 3cy plumage heading north fairly close in (apparently a description species here – should have got a photo!).  In addition to the Yellow-legged Gulls that breed on the adjacent island of Geronysos I also had 3 Lesser Black-backed Gulls that all appeared to be the nominate fuscus Baltic Gull’ with striking black upperparts.  I never like to use subjective features (like size) with gulls but the light, dainty build was notable compared to most graellsii and intermedius that I’ve seen.
 Cape Drepanon near Agios Georgios - another great spot for migrants

 Plenty of butterflies were about too, including this smart Swallowtail.  Painted Ladies were easily the commonest but I also had Clouded Yellow, Bath White and Cyprus Meadow Brown

 I never got tired of seeing these smart feldegg 'Black-headed' Yellow Wagtails and hearing their buzzy calls

As dusk approached we called in at the famous Scops Owl site along the road to the Mavrokolympos Dam, easily accessed from the coast road, for the 'Cyprus' Scops Owls (considered a potential future split due to the different call and plumage tones).  The sun was still fairly high as I left the car but a Scops was already calling from the far side of the valley, this being very distinctive from other Eurasian Scops in that it has two parts – the first being the familiar sonar blip and the second being a shorter, more abrupt blip a few seconds later.  As I waited for the owls to show I saw a couple of Chukars and a long-winged falcon overhead which looked good for Eleonora’s but views were too brief to confirm.  As dusk gathered I was suitably impressed when a Scops landed on the telephone wires just overhead and started calling.  Although it was getting dark there was still enough light to view it through the scope and note the darker, browner plumage tones compared to the greyer plumage of most Eurasian Scops.  I was even more impressed when a second bird joined it and the two spent a while catching moths in aerial sallies from the wires.  No tape lure was used, or needed – the birds show well if you’re patient enough, just watch out for the mossies!

 Just having this Scops to myself as it called from the wires was good enough so I was even more surprised when a second bird joined it

Day 5: 17/04/14
We spent the day exploring a few spots along the southern coast starting with Ladies Mile beach before heading back via Bishop’s Pool, trying to find Kensington Cliffs and another evening at Mandria.

Zakaki Pool, just before Ladies Mile beach, was one of the first sites I’d found that actually contained some water and sure enough was providing temporary home to a Little Stint, 2 Ruff and 2 Wood Sandpipers but little else despite looking to have good potential.  I’m sure that anyone watching this regularly would turn up plenty more.  Ladies Mile beach was distinctly underwhelming considering what I’d read about it; most of the salt pans behind the beach were dry and devoid of birds while the ramshackle beach restaurants dotted along the ‘mile’ didn’t do much for the overall appearance.  We drove south along the edge of the salt pans and then picked up the track leading west around the southern edge of the massive expanse of Lemesos salt lake.  Agios Nikolaus monastery enables access to Bishop’s Pool and a network of trails throughout this irrigated agricultural area.  The pool itself appeared to be an irrigation dam so was holding plenty of water, but was fairly quiet.  In addition to numerous Little Grebes and Coots were a Purple Heron, Green, Wood and Common Sandpipers.  Walking the trails turned up 2 Chukars, 3 Eastern Olivaceous Warblers and a calling Collared Flycatcher.  A scan of Lemesos salt lake produced 209 Greater Flamingos shimmering in the haze; this site is renowned for the small numbers of Demoiselle Cranes that stop here en route south during late August.

Heading back west I tried to find Kensington Cliffs at Episkopi Garrison (a good site for Eleonora’s Falcons and Griffon Vultures) but, despite finding the general location, couldn’t locate any paths down to the cliffs.  While searching I had 6 Griffon Vultures soaring together and 10+ Alpine Swifts as ample compensation though.  A visit to Kourion stadium (dating from the 2nd Century AD) produced a singing male Cyprus Warbler.

Mandria was much quieter than on the previous visit, but I couldn’t complain with 3 Short-toed Larks, 2 Red-throated Pipits and single Isabelline and Eastern Black-eared Wheatears.  A female-type Marsh Harrier quartered the fields and 2 Audouin’s Gulls were on the beach.

 Cyprus Warbler singing at Kourion Stadium

These Night Herons were part of a flock of 12 roosting on the coast at Mandria before continuing their migration
Day 6: 18/04/14
We headed even further east today visiting Cape Gkreko in the south-east (near the infamous Agia Napa!) for a bit of hiking.  Walking along the coast path I flushed a Wryneck which then perch

ed in a low bush and showed reasonably well before slinking into the undergrowth.  3 Spectacled Warblers were in the stunted bushes near the sea but migrants were very thin on the ground; Red-throated Pipit, a male Eastern Black-eared Wheatear, female Whitethroat and a male Blackcap.  A look round Agia Napa sewage works revealed an Ortolan and Spotted Flycatcher.

On the way back we called in at Oroklini Marsh near Larnaka, which is a great little reserve with a new hide overlooking the main pool and plenty to offer.  I’m always intrigued by wetland birding when abroad due to the mix of commonplace birds alongside scarce/rare species in a UK context and I wasn’t disappointed here.  Among 5 Teal and a pair of Shoveler were 3 drake Garganey and 3 pairs of Red-crested Pochard.  25 Greater Flamingos fed on the open water and 31 Cattle Egrets roosted among the Little Egrets while 3 Squacco and a Purple Heron were present.  Waders were represented by numerous breeding Black-winged Stilts, c.10 Ruff, a Wood Sandpiper and a Black-tailed Godwit presumed to be of the nominate limosa race due to the bill length and paler plumage tones.  The site is well known for Spur-winged Lapwings and at least 2 pairs were present, with birds sitting on nests.  A Whiskered Tern was also passing through.
 Spur-winged Lapwing at Oroklini Marsh

Day 7: 19/04/14
With the end of the holiday getting nearer it was time to ease off the gas a bit for the final few days, which meant a lie-in for Mil but a regular early morning visit to Pafos headland for me!  I set the alarm to be down there first thing and arrived full of expectation after the previous night’s rain only to realise it didn’t open until 08:30 – at least this meant I could set the alarm a bit later for the next few mornings!  I passed the time before the gate opened by walking along the coastal path outside the fenced-off area.  Birds on the move included 10 Short-toed Larks and a mixed flock of 8 Squacco Herons and 10 Little Egrets.  Once inside the gates I flushed a Stone-curlew from the auditorium area and also had a Lesser Whitethroat and 2 Ortolans for my efforts.

Later on in the morning I called in at the Aspro Dam recreational area (a small parking area with groups of trees ideal for collecting migrants).  The showers that had been passing through had dropped in a few birds including 3 Wood Warbler, 2 Spotted Flycatcher and a male Pied Flycatcher.  A male Spectacled Warbler also showed really well nearby.

The rest of the day was spent dodging the rain but on a return visit to Troodos I had another Roller and heard a Cuckoo (apparently only thought to be an occasional breeder on Cyprus).  With the sun back out an evening walk round the Tombs of the Kings (dating back to the 4th Century BC!) resulted in another Stone-curlew, 4 Tawny Pipits and an .Eastern Black-eared Wheatear.

 Woodchat Shrikes were passing through many of the coastal sites with some singing

Day 8: 20/04/14
Being Easter Sunday the staff were even less inclined to open Pafos headland up this morning so I had to be satisfied with the promenade instead.  A Wood Sandpiper was a bit out of place on the rocky coastline and a group of flava wagtails included some more thunbergi (Grey-headeds) and presumed beemas (Sykes's).

While at the Asprokremnos Dam the previous day we’d noticed an abandoned village (Finikas) along the distant shore so decided to try and walk to it today.  This was a great spot for Rollers with at least 2 pairs already establishing territories along the crags lining the path; one bird was ‘rolling’ like a dervish right over the village itself and putting on a great display.  The Jackdaws seemed to be in constant conflict with the Rollers and it was interesting to see that they had striking white shoulder patches contrasting with very dark underparts as I hadn’t realised this feature was apparent so far south.  In and around Finikas were a Little Owl, a Tawny Pipit, Spotted Flycatcher, male Blackcap, male Ortolan, Spanish Sparrow and, best of all, a Great Spotted Cuckoo that was being chased around by some Magpies.  Three Turtle Doves were also heard.  We had our lunch at the Finsch’s Wheatear wintering spot, but these normally leave by late March and sure enough there were none today.

Nearby, a quick visit to Anarita ‘park’ produced at least 5 Lesser Kestrel, which pass through on migration due to the insects generated by the nearby chicken farms, and excellent views of 4 Great Spotted Cuckoos that were chasing each other around next to the car; these appeared to be first-year birds but I was surprised to see a juvenile in the mix too.

An evening fix of Mandria beach resulted in a single Grey and Purple Heron flying in-off together, a ‘Baltic’ Gull moved west as did a probable Heuglin’s Gull which couldn’t be confirmed with only brief flight views.  The highlight here was yet another education in flava wagtails, with a flock of around 30 showing really well from the car; these included feldegg (Black-headed), flava (Blue-headed), ‘dombrowskii’, presumed beema (Sykes's) and a very smart ‘superciliaris’ boasting striking white supercilia on a jet black head.

 Rollers were showing well above Finikas

Jackdaws showed the white collar familiar with the eastern types
One of 4 Great Spotted Cuckoos near Anarita
Day 9: 21/04/14
The morning walk around Pafos headland was helped by the gates opening on time and produced 2 Stone-curlew (presumably a pair), a fly-through Cuckoo, a vivid Bee-eater hawking insects over the auditorium, Eastern Black-eared Wheatear, female Whitethroat and 3 Woodchat Shrikes (including singing birds).

We couldn’t resist a return trip to the Akamas peninsula so headed back that way to explore the area some more.  Migrants seemed much thinner on the ground compared to a week previously, but there had been a notable increase in Eastern Olivaceous Warblers since the last visit with at least 10 birds singing around Aphrodite’s Pool alone.  A return to Smigies gave good views of the male Masked Shrike after I found a discreet spot on its feeding circuit.  While sitting quietly an Ortolan dropped innocently down onto the track and I was almost as surprised as the bunting when the shrike pounced on it from out of nowhere, although it did somehow manage to escape by the skin of its teeth.  The Masked Shrikes were smaller than I expected so it was surprising to see one go for an Ortolan.

An evening visit to Agios Georgios resulted in a calling Whimbrel flying north-west along the coast, 7 Short-toed Larks, a Tawny Pipit, a feldegg ‘Black-headed’ Yellow Wagtail, female Blackcap, 2 Woodchat Shrikes (also singing) and c.5 Ortolans.

Aphrodite's Pool area was great for Eastern Olivaceous Warblers, especially later on into the month

Male Eastern Black-eared Wheatear on the Akamas peninsula
Agios Georgios was good for Ortolans with small numbers seen on most visits

Day 10: 22/04/14
My final morning round of Pafos headland produced Stone-curlew, 1-2 Hoopoe, 2 Short-toed Lark, 3-4 Tawny Pipits, 3-4 Tree Pipits, 5 Red-throated Pipits, 2 Nightingales (both showing and singing), a female Redstart, a female Collared Flycatcher and 2-3 Woodchat Shrikes.

After the failure to find Kensington Cliffs, let alone any Eleonora’s Falcons, I decided to give Cape Aspro a spin of the dice.  Near Pissouri these massive white cliffs are home to another colony of Eleonora’s Falcons but are also very inaccessible for viewing except from a small lay-by near the Rocks of Aphrodite.  A scan from here revealed a dark, long-winged falcon swooping over the sea but better views were needed.  Thankfully I managed to find a small path down to a hidden beach and spent the next hour or two enjoying some great views of these majestic raptors as they displayed around the cliffs.  Four birds (3 dark phase) were back in and a pair appeared to have settled down already.  Also seen here were several Alpine Swifts and 4 desmarestii Shags.  A male Cyprus Warbler gave brief but good views as it sang next to the car; basically sounding much scratchier and harsher than the omnipresent Sardinian Warblers.

Pair of Eleonora's Falcons, Cape Aspro

A final evening visit to Mandria gave 15 Squacco Heron roosting on coastal rocks in two groups of 6 and 9, 2 male Black Francolin (1 of which showed distantly on top of a farm building) and a Red-throated Pipit.

With such a great diversity of migrant species passing through and some special breeding species, not to mention the warm weather (most of the time!), birding in Cyprus was fantastic.  Regularly finding birds that are scarce/rare in the UK became very addictive and I’ve definitely been bitten by the bug to go back!


  1. Now that is a blog and a half. You've got to love Cyprus :)

  2. Thanks Chris. Fantastic; and fantastic memories reignited for me as well.