Birding On Cyprus Again

In choosing Paphos again for November birding there were other attractions.

There are not many places like Cyprus with guaranteed sun at this time of the year, English speaking (mostly) and where they drive on the left, yet reached with under 5 hours’ travel.

The town is also to be 2017 European Capital of Culture along with Arhus in Denmark, beating Nicosia and Limassol for the honour. Not surprising, given that the Paphos headland is a world heritage site for its large number of wonderfully preserved Roman mosaics in situ and dating from the 2nd & 3rd centuries AD (Paphos was the seat of the proconsul).

There is also a brilliant exhibition of big scale photos of Cyprus birds (put on by Birdlife) in the so-called “Villa of Theseus” on that extensive archeological site. Both that site and the adjacent “Tombs of the Kings” archaeological site (impressive underground vaults for burying rich citizens) also happen to be good for birding as well.

The mosaics were famously discovered in 1962 by a farmer ploughing his fields. Here is an example of the 40 or so mosaics, this from the so-called “House of Dionysus”, all based on classical Greco-Roman myths. It depicts the tragic Hippolytos, hunting with his dog, and embarrassedly reading the letter from lovesick Phaedra, wife of King Theseus. Cupid on the right directs his burning torch towards her heart. (Note that emperor Theodosius did not proscribe paganism until the 4th century AD). [click on a photo for a larger view]

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Eastwards just along the coast are further impressive archaeological sites (also good for birding), such as at Kurion (another world heritage site). Within or near the British sovereign base at Akrotiri, that site of an ancient city includes remains of various buildings, also with mosaics, and this Greco-Roman amphitheatre (restored for summer performances) with great views over the sea.

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Finally, at Kouklia (nearer to Paphos) are the remains of the “Sanctuary of Aphrodite” temples and other ruins, dating from the 12th century BC and a major religious centre in the ancient world (possibly starting in the C15th BC and continuing until the 4th century AD until Christianity took over in the Roman empire). It celebrated the supposed birth of Aphrodite from the sea. Nearby is the “Petra tou Romiou” (the rock of the Greek) a rock in the sea just off-shore, whence Hesiod (classical writer) claims that she was born from the waves and escorted ashore on a shell by the Zephys (as per Botticelli’s famous painting “Birth of Venus”).

Here is a photo from the on-site museum. It shows, for example, interesting limestone and clay bath tubs (the former dates from the 11th century BC and is complete with soap dish) found in the area.

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As to the birding, our expectations were not great. Jane, our guide again, was pessimistic. The main migration season was over; there are reportedly 50,000 registered hunters in a population of less than 1 Million in the “south” of the island; and, there had been nine months without any significant rain (reservoirs down to 21% of capacity and the 4 desalination plants working full tilt).

But we were wrong!

Of the locally based raptors, we saw every one - Bonelli’s Eagle, Long-legged Buzzard (Common Buzzard is absent), Sparrowhawk several times (on migration), female Hen Harrier quartering close by, several Marsh Harriers (again close views), a Peregrine standing in a puddle near what passed for the Akrotiri salt lake (and ignored by a small wader nearby), lots of Kestrels, and best of all - 3 huge resident Griffon Vultures.

The latter, with 8 foot wingspans, circled over the sea as they returned to their roost on the Kensington Cliffs at about 5 pm, as it was going dark. Our guide, Jane, said that this spot near Akrotiri is the only roost on the island. A few years ago the number of individuals had declined to only 8, but is now 30 after introductions from Crete, successful breeding and regular feeding from 2 secret feeding stations.

Unfortunately, we did not get close enough to any raptors for a decent photo, except for Kestrels. Here are two of my best ever images of a male and a female in the archaeological sites at Paphos. In both cases I was able to get really close - and in the case of the female it actually landed about 15 feet away to sit on a bush and look at me-almost like a garden robin waiting for me to provide a tit-bit.

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The female.

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The male

The low rocky shoreline around the Paphos headland produced some familiar winter visitors: a Whimbrel, probably the same visitor as last year; 4 Greater Sand Plovers; 13 Golden Plovers; 3 Turnstones; 1 Common Sandpiper; and, the most surprising – a Common Kingfisher initially motionless on a rock in the water. Apparently, they like fishing in the sea on coasts during winter migration from the north.

I managed to get quite close to the Plovers. Here is one of the rather nondescript Greater Sand Plovers (winter plumage):

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And here are a few of the lovely Golden Plovers, completely static. In contrast, the smaller Turnstones (here preening in the background) were ultra active foraging in the seaweed, and barged through the flock as if they did not exist – moving the larger Goldies out of their way.

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The Paphos headland itself (mainly comprising the archaeological parks) contained the usual Black Redstarts, lots of Hooded Crows and Goldfinches, some White Wagtails, Linnets, Crested Larks, Sardinian Warblers, and seemingly, on every bush and spindly piece of vegetation - a wintering Stonechat.

Here is a photo of a resident Crested Lark, crest partially raised and singing from its perch on a large boulder.

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And here is a male Sardinian Warbler (another resident), showing well its orange eye-ring and black cap. A very vocal and bold little bird, it is usually difficult to photograph as it is so active. I hid behind a bush to get this shot.

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And here is a White Wagtail. Winter visitors, they are very similar to our Pied Wagtail in both looks and habits, but with a grey back and with a slightly greenish tinge on the cheeks.

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And here is a typical male Stonechat on the Paphos headland on a typical perch. As can be seen, the weather was quite windy in our first week - but that did not put the birds off from their usual habits (males and females alike)!

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Our visits to the Akrotiri peninsular, undeveloped because of the British base, once again produced some excellent birds.

The Phassouri reed beds, where last year I had the encounter with a bull, is now fenced off and being developed as a formal nature reserve complete with a hide. Here we had wonderfully close views of two tiny Penduline Tits (10 cms long) feeding on the reed flower seeds – probably a female (with eye stripe) and a juvenile. Here is a close-up of the juvenile taken at the time by my guide, Jane, who has a better camera than mine. The Goldfinch-like pointed beak is well adapted to its food source.

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What was left of any water in the large salt lake in the centre of the peninsular had small flocks of Greater Flamingos and Grey Herons (as usual) but at the nearby Zakaki pool, there were big surprises. Just in front of the hide, a wintering Song Thrush poked around on the cut reeds. Then a Jack Snipe (a scarce passage migrant) suddenly emerged from under the vegetation to forage in the mud. Only the third time I have ever seen one.

Smaller than the Common Snipe and having a less elongated bill, here is a photo of the bird in action, showing its wonderful markings.

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As a further treat, a Bluethroat (another passage migrant and for me, another rare sighting) suddenly emerged in the heather under the hide. Here it is, showing off its electric blue chest:

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A second visit to this site later in the week produced only my second ever sighting of a Moustached Warbler (a winter visitor - photo in last year’s report). These quite rare small birds prefer to feed just above the water line. Here it skulked like a Wren in a clump of heather growing in the sludge, poking out from time to time very close – but impossible to photograph this time.

Other sites on the peninsular produced more great sightings. A group of Chukars (similar to the Red-legged Partridge) scurried – confident of not being shot, as hunting is banned on the base. A resident Fan-tailed Warbler (Zitting Cisticola) perched on top of a tree and resident Corn Buntings allowed me to get quite close for this shot.

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On the so-called “Gravel pits” two Woodlarks pottered on the ground. Over 100 Kentish Plovers (a resident breeder around the salt lake but of course no longer in Kent) had gathered on the brackish pools near the Lady’s Mile beach. Amongst this flock were several Little Stints, as last year, (again on passage) and a few Dunlin. Unusual for the UK, in the heat of the Cyprus day hardly a single bird moved.

Then on the Lady’s Mile beach itself a large flock of wintering Black-Headed Gulls floated on the water, waiting no doubt for the daily feed from the restaurant overlooking the beach. Amongst them local bird experts pointed out several adult and juvenile Armenian Gulls, wintering as last year, but also 4 Slender-billed Gulls, a coastal gull, somewhat scarce anywhere in the Mediterranean, and a lifer for me. When the restaurant finally threw the food after lunch, the gulls went mad. Here is the action. The Slender-bills missed the feeding frenzy- having already departed.

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The Armenian Gulls remained aloof from this free-for-all. They are essentially an inland gull, breeding at lakes in mountainous areas in Asia Minor, Transcaucasia and NW Iran. They winter in places like Cyprus, Israel and south to the Persian Gulf. Here is a close shot of an adult in winter plumage (with some grey speckling on the nape and round the eyes, which disappears in summer). A hint of one of the yellow legs can just be seen in the water. Very similar to the resident and far commoner Yellow-legged Gull, the dark eye and more rounded head shape give a much milder expression than its fierce looking cousin.

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Another great birding site was, surprisingly, in the fields of Mandria and its neighbourhood, quite close to the airport.

Here is a close-up of a wintering Chiffchaff, with its dainty bill, dark legs, buffish underside, and indistinct supercilium and eye stripe. Always so active and hidden by leaves when breeding in the UK, it is usually very difficult to get a good photo.

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In a puddle created by an overnight storm on a farm track, we came upon a juvenile Red-backed Shrike. A late passage migrant on the way to Africa, it was taking advantage of a quick bath, along with a Serin.

But best of all, our guide, Jane, had heard word of Stone Curlews. Sure enough, in the middle of a ploughed field, first one, then two and finally a full flock of 25 gradually emerged from the furrows, preening, stationary or moving sedately. Rare in the UK, these are prehistoric looking birds, medium sized with big yellow eyes and long greenish legs – my second lifer of this trip. Pity that we couldn’t get near enough for a photo for fear of scaring them.

Also close to the airport, we visited for the second year the Paphos sewage works, to see the long-legged Spur-winged Lapwings. The resident flock now numbers over 30, reports Jane, and they are doing well. Here is a shot of one elegant individual.

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Our final birding sortie was to the Asprokremnos dam near Paphos and to the hills nearby this huge lake (so-called Anarita Park - apparently christened as such by birders).

Yet again we were fortunate. In the deserted (and ruined) village of Finikas at the far end of the lake, a Blue Rock Thrush obligingly appeared and then 3 separate male Finsch’s Wheatears (a scarce winter visitor). This was only my third ever sighting of these smart black and white birds. They seem to like rocky hillside with good perches.

Then, as we made our way down to the lakeside, Jane heard what was to her the distinctive call of the endemic Cyprus Warbler – and sure enough, it appeared. It flew behind a low bush, whence it angrily clicked at me as I phished and tried to get a photo. Very similar to the Sardinian Warbler, but with a spotted breast, most of its fellows had already gone to Africa for the winter. Only my second ever sighting, we had been lucky again!

A juvenile Whiskered Tern, a passage migrant, then flew over the lake and landed nearby on a ruined jetty (also my second ever sighting of this dainty lake species). Here is a shot taken by my guide, Jane, with her longer zoom camera. Pity it is dozing, but the coarse patterning on a juvenile’s back can be plainly seen.

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A Common Kingfisher landed on one of the many dead sticks in the water, a Water Pipit poked around in the muddy bank, and a splendid male Linnet in breeding plumage came to the water’s edge for a drink.

Finally, Anarita Park produced a female Finsch’s Wheatear and this Little Owl. Jane said that it perches regularly on this rock. It has a burrow just behind – whence it disappeared as I tried to get closer.

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One last photo I have to include is of a Grey Wagtail, a winter visitor. It is one of my favourite birds – such a deep yellow breast contrasting with its dapper grey overcoat. And cheerful too, confidently strutting around and bobbing its very long tail. Here is one in Kouklia village centre, foraging under an olive tree – most unexpected. There was no water in sight! As you know, this bird breeds on fast-moving watercourses. Maybe it took a wrong turn on migration from Northern Europe?

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As to other animals on Cyprus, there are no rabbits, only hares. There are hedgehogs and foxes (becoming a bit of a pest, Jane says), but no badgers. There are lots of lizards. This prehistoric looking Agama in Paphos is common everywhere, growing to over a foot long but quite harmless.

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There are also butterflies (53 species in summer - with quite a few still around) and dragonflies, like this Lesser Emperor (also colonising the UK) seen at Zakaki pool – with green eyes and a smart blue saddle – still active into November.

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All in all, another memorable trip.

Peter M
November 2016

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