Birding On Cyprus Once Again November 2017

We have just returned from our annual November fortnight in Cyprus. No rain, almost constant sun and temperatures over 20 degrees. Wonderful!

Despite the continuing problem with the locals illegally trapping and eating songbirds (even I hear in the British sovereign base area at Dhekelia) our local guide, Jane, reported plenty of the usual winter visitor species. She also mentioned chances of seeing very late migrants passing through from the north and late departing summer breeders.

Our base again was Paphos, a 2017 European Capital of Culture. Though that honour doesn’t seem to have accelerated refurbishment of the main archaeological museum (still closed). But at least the world heritage site on the Paphos headland was still open for its large number of wonderfully preserved Roman mosaics in situ and dating from the 2nd & 3rd centuries AD (see last year’s report for more detail). As last year, that site, the adjacent “Tombs of the Kings” archaeological site, and the rocks around the Paphos headland were all again very good for birding as well.

Also good for birding is another UNESCO world heritage archaeological site “Sanctuary of Aphrodite” at Kouklia, 20 minutes drive away. Here is a photo from the site (mentioned in last year’s report) looking towards the sea and showing the varied habitats of the area.

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On display at the site is this remarkably well-preserved mosaic from the 2nd to 3rd century AD. According to Greek mythology, the swan, an incarnation of Zeus, seduced Leda, wife of the king of Sparta. The union supposedly produced 4 offspring, including Helen of Troy. Discovered in the floor of the site of a Roman villa nearby, the mosaic is now in the excellent on-site museum.

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Not so good for birding is the mediaeval castle of Kolossi (b.1454), near the Akrotiri peninsular. Here is a photo of the entrance, drawbridge, etc. We visited on our way to the Akrotiri Marshes nature reserve (the largest wetland on the island).

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Built by the Knights Hospitallers as their base, when they got ejected from the Holy Land and before they moved to Rhodes, Kolossi is an impressive fortress. From the battlements there are also excellent views over the surrounding countryside, including vineyards once cultivated by the knights and ruins of their sugar factory (once a mainstay of the island economy). Here is a photo taken towards the Akrotiri peninsular, also home of the other British sovereign base, as well as the site of the reserve.

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As to the birding, we recorded 68 species in total from our island stay this year.

Of the local raptors, we again had great views of most of them – a pair of resident Bonelli’s Eagle (supposedly only 800 pairs in the whole of the Mediterranean), several resident Long-legged Buzzards, lots of Kestrels and several winter visitors: Common Buzzards, Sparrowhawk, male and female Hen Harriers quartering close by, Marsh Harriers, and best of all- a grey male Pallid Harrier.

A first for me, the latter is very similar to, though slightly smaller and paler than, the male Hen Harrier. It came in off the sea at Mandria and sat perched on the grass for a short while. Just afterwards a grey male Hen Harrier obligingly appeared (for comparison) hunting low over the adjacent fields and chased by Hooded Crows.

A Long-legged Buzzard obligingly sat on a rock for a while – for observation purposes- before moving to perch on what Jane said was an empty magpie nest in the top of a tree. Whereupon, it was surrounded by a gaggle of the much smaller magpies. It completely ignored them.

Unfortunately, we did not get close enough to any raptors for a decent photo, except for Kestrels. Here are two images of the bird on the shoreline at Paphos. The first is a rear view on the ground after a catch. The second is of the bird actually eating the prey in the air, as it holds it in one of its claws.

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The low rocky shoreline around the Paphos headland produced some familiar winter visitors, probably exactly the same birds as last year: a Whimbrel, 4 Greater Sand Plovers, 12 Golden Plovers, 1 Turnstone, 1 Common Sandpiper, and a Common Kingfisher. The latter sat on a rock in the middle of a rock pool, caught a fish, and proceeded to bash it senseless against the rock before flying off with it.

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, Corn Buntings, Meadow Pipits, 2 Red-throated Pipits (visiting from the Russian Arctic), Sardinian warblers, and seemingly, on every bush and spindly piece of vegetation - a wintering Stonechat.

Here is a close photo of a resident Crested Lark foraging, crest raised.

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And here is another of the birds taking a dust bath, like House sparrows.

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And here, for comparison, is a visiting Skylark photographed in a ploughed field at nearby Mandria. There these larks generally flew around nervously in large flocks or hid in the furrows – difficult to get close for a decent photo.

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Our visits to the Paphos sites this year also produced my best photos of Goldfinches and Corn Buntings.

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But my most unusual photo in Paphos is undoubtedly of a most unexpected bird- a Pink-backed Pelican. Normally a resident of southern Africa, this tame bird suddenly flew over a hundred yards at head height along the Paphos prom between the restaurants and the shops before alighting in front of one of the restaurants. Surrounded by curious tourists with cameras, it ignored proffered titbits in favour of a bit of preening.

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Our Kouklia visit was also profitable. On the site, apart from Chaffinches, Chiffchaffs, Great tits (no Blue tits on Cyprus), Larks, and an excellent close view of a Fan-tailed warbler sitting on top of tall grasses, I saw a visiting Lesser Whitethroat foraging busily in an olive tree.

In the attached Lusignian medieval manor complex (housing the museum) this splendid male Black Redstart flew about the courtyard, bobbing its rusty tail.

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Then in the village itself I spotted this pretty Laughing Dove foraging on the road. Slightly smaller than the Collared Dove, Jane explained that the species was unknown in Cyprus until fairly recently, and that it is now colonising the whole island, probably from mainland Turkey or Egypt, where they are common.

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Our visits to the Akrotiri peninsular, undeveloped because of the British base, once again produced a few good birds.

The Phassouri reed beds, now renamed Akrotiri Marshes, where two years ago I had the encounter with a young bull, is now fenced off and developed into a formal nature reserve complete with (now) two hides full of bird illustrations. But apart from a few White Wagtails and a single Cattle Egret attending the grazing cattle, there were no birds to be seen! Until we spotted a single Bee-eater at the very top of the dead branches of a nearby tree, with its long curved beak wide open to snap up passing insects – very late on its way to Africa, as Jane observed.

In the large salt lake in the centre of the peninsular there seemed to be more water than last year. Hence huge flocks of visiting adult and juvenile Greater Flamingos (could well have been a thousand). Unfortunately, you can’t get close and needed a telescope to even see what they were. But they are such an impressive bird that I have to cheat a bit here by including a close-up of an adult flock on an earlier trip to Dubai.

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The nearby Zakaki pool was disappointing this year. The reeds had not been cut in front of the hide. But we did manage to see a Bluethroat again, poking about in the heather by the edge of the reeds.

A new birding site for us was a visit, very late in the day, with Jane to the Secret Valley golf club – to observe the two adjoining lakes there. Apart from a Robin (a much shyer bird in Europe than in the UK of course), Mallards, Coots, 8 Little Grebes, a Little Egret, a Heron and a Kingfisher, there were massive flocks of extremely noisy Jackdaws roosting and Hooded Crows bathing. Then some 60 Cormorants (winter visitors) suddenly arrived to roost communionally in a single tall pine tree by the lakes, some having to fly several times round the tree to find a space to land. Quite extraordinary!

Close to the airport, we visited again the Paphos sewage treatment works, to see the resident Spur-winged Lapwings, a long-legged and elegant plover (photo in last year’s report).

Other resident birds we saw on our travels around the west of the island were: Chukars (similar to our Red-legged Partridge) in several places, a late-departing female Cyprus warbler (a Sardinian warbler with spotted breast), a Woodlark (perched on a rock), Moorhens, several large flocks of Yellow-legged gulls, and a massive flock of Wood pigeons. The pigeons (at least two hundred) whirled in the air near the sewage treatment works, like starlings, occasionally settling en masse on fruiting hedgerows or tall trees. Quite a spectacle!

Other winter visitors we saw included a smart male Finsch’s Wheatear (up in the hills), a Blackcap, a female Blue Rock Thrush, a Calandra Lark, a Song thrush, several Teal, the usual flock of Black-headed and a few Armenian gulls on the Lady’s Mile beach, flocks of Starlings, and an Audouin’s gull.

I also saw, for only my second time, a Common Quail (passage migrant). My wife nearly trod on one on a tussocky hillside when we were out with Jane. It gave us a bit of a shock when it suddenly took off. Later in the week another one flew low across the road in front of our car.

As to other animals on Cyprus, this time we saw only lizards. Here is a photo of the very long-tailed, agile and pretty Snake-eyed lizard. I read that a characteristic feature of this family of lizards is a lack of separate eyelids. Instead, the eye is covered by a transparent ‘spectacle’ like that of snakes, giving rise to this species’ common name. The spectacle may sometimes be pulled briefly downwards to clean off dust and dirt. A combination of large eyes with overhanging ridges gives the snake-eyed lizard something of a ‘staring’ expression.

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Cyprus never seems to disappoint. Another great trip!

Peter M
November 2017

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