Of Avian Dreams
THE BIRDS OF GREECE
"BIRDS TRAVEL THOUSANDS OF KILOMETERS EACH YEAR TO BREED AND THEN GO BACK TO WHERE THEY CAME FROM...SOME OF THEM MAY EVEN CHOOSE THE SAME BUSH TO BREED IN THE NEXT YEAR...
IT'S A MIRACLE OF LIFE."
In modern history, Greece’s most famous bird may as well be the Mykonian pelikan, one that enjoys celebrity status as it wobbles around the island in Cycladic chic style, gently nipping at tourists eager to snap a photograph with this iconic figure. But beyond the pelikan and the ubiquitous city-dwelling pigeon, Greece is home to a marvelous selection of bird species, some 454 of them. Indeed, the country’s extremely unique and varied micro-ecosystems, geographical positioning, and special migratory routes, make Greece quite the paradise for birds.
BIRDS IN HISTORY
The quirky life of winged creatures has awed humans for millennia. In ancient times, birds were observed, studied and revered. They were considered omens, both good and bad. Ornithomancy, known as augury in the Roman world, was the practice of deriving omens from the actions of birds.
The ancient Egyptians celebrated the vulture, sacred animal to the pharaohs, in art and jewelry including elaborate gold headdresses. On the other side of the globe, legend has it the Aztecs founded the city of Tenochtitlan based on a prophecy, in the location where they eventually came across an eagle perched on a cactus, eating a serpent.
In Greece, birds have made an appearance in mythology, religion, art and theater. The examples are many. The voracious metallic-beaked Stymphalian birds with a taste for human flesh are said to have been slain by Hercules. In the story of the intelligent Titan Prometheus, he is punished for stealing fire from the gods and giving it to humanity, by none other than Zeus’ emblem, an eagle that eats at the immortal’s regenerating liver on the daily.
From Athena’s sacred owl and Apollo’s symbolic crows, to Aristophanes’ comedy “The Birds” (Ornithes), and the very inspiration behind Dedalus’ wings, birds have constituted a significant source of creativity for humans throughout the ages.
With over 18,000 bird species on this planet according to 2016 research led by the American Museum of Natural History, the quest to spot all birds both common and rare, is a tremendous feat for any individual. The research, which suggests there are nearly twice as many bird species as previously acknowledged, focuses on “hidden” avian diversity, or, “birds that look similar to one another, or were thought to interbreed, but are actually different species.”
The most passionate of birdwatchers travel the globe, actively taking on the challenge to seek and find as many types of birds as possible. These individuals include the likes of Tom Gullick, who was the first person to see and hear 9,000 species by the age of 81 in 2012, and Jon Hornbuckle who, having observed a total of 9,600 different bird species, is ranked the world’s top birder.
Widely acknowledged as descendents of theropod dinosaurs, and set among the most intelligent of animals, birds are characterized by their beaks, feathers, sturdy yet lightweight skeleton, and egg-laying nature. Amazingly, birds represent some of the most diverse species on the planet, ranging from as tiny as the two-inch bee hummingbird of Cuba (Mellisuga helenae) that weighs less than a penny, to as large as the ostrich of Africa (Struthio camelus), which reaches a towering height of over nine feet.
A number of bird species have been observed using tools, performing songs and dances, even collecting color-coded items and weaving intricate nests to impress prospective mates. They are also known to pass on knowledge, like special migratory routes, from generation to generation.
In Greece, a total of 454 unique bird species have been recorded and recognized to date. “This is quite a large number, compared to the size of the country,” says Antonis Tsaknakis, co-founder of Birding in Greece, a provider of organized birdwatching tours.
The country’s rich avifauna can be attributed to this uniquely diverse ecosystem, he says. “The main reason for this [number of species] is the geographical position of the country, which is the cross boarder of three continents, as well as the variety of different ecosystems, from wetlands, lakes, rivers and forests to mountains and remote islands,” Tsaknakis says.
Species like the Ferruginous Duck (Aythya nyroca), Pygmy Cormorant (Microcarbo pygmeus), Great White Pelican (Pelecanus onocrotalus) and Eleonora’s Falcon (Falco eleonorae), are relatively easy to come across in Greece, whereas they are hardly spotted in the rest of Europe.
Birdwatching, or the act of observing aves in their natural environment, ranges from simple admiration to the meticulous cataloging of bird species. An increasingly popular activity for amateurs and professionals alike, birdwatching makes for a great outdoor activity that combines entertainment and education.
“Everyone can be a birdwatcher,” Tsaknakis says. The difference between birdwatching and birding, he explains, is in the intensity of observation and documentation. “You may be a birdwatcher and not know it yet. If you enjoy observing swallows during spring and summer, or spotting birds in your garden or an urban park, your next step is to capture these moments...a birder usually keeps trip reports and lists, travels often for birdwatching and spends money to acquire equipment.”
In Greece, birdwatching extends beyond a personal hobby or travel activity, as it has helped identify a number of species living in Greece. In 2011, for example, birdwatcher and member of the Hellenic Ornithological Society, Michael Kotsakis, observed the Pallas’s Warbler (Phylloscopus proregulus), a bird originating in Siberia, on Mount Ymittos in Athens. After official approval from the Hellenic Rarities Committee, the Pallas’s Warbler became the 444th recognized bird species in Greece.
For Tsaknakis, what triggered his interest in birds from a young age was their freedom of flight, he says. “Birds are free to fly wherever and whenever they want.” Gradually, he explains, he was able to differentiate birds by color and behavior. “I was surprised and impressed by the variety of species, their diversity and habits," he says.
For others, birdwatching is a way to bring oneself closer to nature. “Everything about nature offers a sort of peace...I enjoy the process of searching, discovering and photographing,” says Dimitros Kaliakoudas, a self-taught amateur photographer who has been capturing images of birds for nearly 15 years. “The observation and photography of birds educates you about another world that you can never get enough of...with time and observation, you learn the habits of these birds.”
BIRD AREAS IN GREECE
A country that boasts a rich avifauna, lush flora and remarkable marine life, Greece is a haven for birds during all four seasons.
The Hellenic Ornithological Society lists a total of 196 “important bird areas” or locations throughout Greece deemed particularly important for bird conservation. These locations, selected on the basis of international criteria, are home to “significant populations of one or more globally or regionally threatened, endemic or congregatory bird species, or highly representative bird assemblages,” according to the Ornithological Society, which states in a document that “Important Bird Areas are more than a bunch of sites. They aim to form a network of sites ensuring that migratory species find suitable breeding, stop-over and wintering places along their respective flyways.”
For migratory birds like the rare Egyptian Vulture (Neophron percnopterus), Greece serves as an oasis between their long flights from Africa, to the Balkans, and back. “Birds travel thousands of kilometers each year to breed and then go back to where they came from,” Tsaknakis says. “Some of them may even choose the same bush to breed in the next year. That’s amazing...it’s a miracle of life.”
More than half the species listed in the country’s official bird catalog have been recorded in the populous prefecture of Attica and Athens, Tsaknakis says. Lycabettus, Zappeion and Antonis Tritsis Park in particular are bird oases in the center of busy Athens.
For birdwatchers of both novice and experienced levels, it is a moment of pure joy when they spot a rare sighting and walk away with photographic evidence. A resident of Macedonia, Giota Matzaratou has been photographing birds for over a decade. Her observation of rare birds have been documented by the Hellenic Ornithological Society, she says.
“What I enjoy the most about bird-watching is the tranquility it offers, the connection one feels with nature, and the possible satisfaction at the end of the day of having captured at least one great photo,” Matzaratou says.
Photography can capture rather interesting moments in the lives of birds in action...their hunting, eating, dancing and socializing nature. But for the avid birdwatcher, the sight of an elusive bird comes second only to discovering a new species.
Tsaknakis describes his search for the very rare, for the country, Pygmy Owl (Glaucidium passerinum) in Elatia Forest in northern Greece (pictured right). “The owl was calling, but it is so small and the forest so dense, which made it almost impossible to spot,” he recalls. “My friend Dimitris immediately signaled me to stop walking, as the owl was perching on a branch about half a meter away,” he says.
WORDS: Portes Magazine
PHOTOS: Dimitris Kaliakoudas | Giota Matzouratou | Antonis Tsaknakis
Dimitris Kaliakoudas is a self-taught amateur photographer who enjoys capturing nature-related images. He was born in Trikala and lives in Ptolemida Kozanis.
Giota Matzouratou grew up in Mesologgim where her father taught her the names of Greece’s birds. She studied at the Academy of Emporikou Nautikou and worked in the shipping industry. A mother of four, she has influenced two of her children to photograph birds. She lives in Macedonia where she enjoys frequenting Mount Vertiskos and Lake Koronia.
Antonis Tsaknakis is a co-founder of Birding in Greece. Passionate about birdwatching and photography, he is in constant search for the perfect “click." He has traveled all over Greece and the world to countries including Peru, Iceland and Cyprus. A regular participant in wildlife photography competitions, Antonis cherishes every moment he finds himself in nature, but the tropical forests of the Amazon in Peru, as well as the wanderings on the glaciers of Iceland, hold a special place in his heart.