Nature and Wildlife of North-east Greece – by Crossbill Guides

A warm welcome to this page about the nature and wildlife of the North-east Greece. This website accompanies the Crossbill nature travel guide to the Eastern Rhodopes – Nestos, Evros and Dadia, a cross-border region partly in Bulgaria and partly in Greece. This is an online Crossbill Guide ‘light’ for the armchair traveller and for all who are preparing a visit to Northeast Greece. It offers some general insights and images to prepare you for your visit, plus some practical information, sites and a free route from the Crossbill Guide. Enjoy!

North-east Greece as defined here covers the eastern part of the Greek province of Macedonia (which stretches up to the River Nestos) and the province of Thrace (Traki) which stretches out to the border with Turkey. To the south the Aegean Sea limits the area and to the north the border of Bulgaria (beyond the border are the famous Bulgarian Eastern Rhodopes).

Landscape of Northeast Greece

The landscape of this region is straightforward. The entire northern strip is mountainous, wild, with very few villages and access roads. These mountains are not very high (generally not higher than 1,500 m), and gently roll down to the coastal plain to the Aegean Sea.
The coastal plain is where the cities and most villages are to be found. The plains are locally interrupted by rocky hills with Mediterranean scrubland. Much of the plains are cultivated, but remnant steppe grasslands, lakes and marshes are present throughout. Two large rivers, the Nestos and the Evros, run down from the mountains and feed large wetlands. The Nestos river is densely forested, while the Evros has more reedbeds, brackish lagoons and shallow marshes. The Evros is larger and has more birds and therefore more attractive, but unfortunately it is hard to visit. It is largely a military zone without access. This is where refugees fetch up along the border with the EU.

The Coast

The north-Aegean coast is a mix of low cliffs and rocky shores, and dunes and coastal marshes. The beaches are wonderfully unspoilt – there are only a few small tourism centres, and these are mostly visited by people from the region.

Nowhere in Greece there are as many coastal marshes, salt flats, lagoons and reedbeds as here in the north-east. The water varies from saline to fresh and boasts a superb birdlife.
The coastal flats are sediments from both rivers and the sea that were deposited over thousands of years, between the rocky hills that are still scattered in the plains. The evergreen, Mediterranean scrub and olive groves are full of orchids and reptiles.
Locally there are dunes, which add an extra habitat to the coast. The dunes are low, but rich in flora and fauna.

Fields and steppes

Further inland lies a strip of land that is flat and fertile – a type of landscape that is not very common in in Greece. Fields and meadows dominate, but with a twist. North-east Greece lies on the border of the Mediterranean realm and the great steppes of the east as can be found on the Black Sea coast and the Anatolian Uplands in Turkey. Many of the steppe species ‘spill over’ into the fallow fields and sheep-grazed, steppe-like grasslands of North-eastern Greece.

Rivers

The eastern Mediterranean has fewer large rivers than the western part of the basin. Spain has its Coto Doñana in the south and the Ebro marshes in the north,  France the Camargue and Italy the Po delta. The main eastern equivalent is the Evros Delta, a spectacular wetland, with fresh and saline lagunes, salt marshes, extensive reedbeds and riparian forests. The birdlife is stupendous, like those western wetlands, but filled with eastern birds, and migrants from eastern Europe and western Asia.

The second large river is the Nestos. It is smaller than the Evros and doesn’t fan out into a big delta, but it has extensive riparian forests (the largest of Greece) and smaller areas of lagoons, saltmarsh and reedbeds on the coast.

For birdwatchers, both deltas are (together with Dadia, see below) the highlight of this region. Sadly, for the reasons noted above, the Evros is quite hard to explore.

The Rhodopes

The Rhodopes are a large mountain range that stretches out all along the Greek Bulgarian border. The Western section is fairly high (up to 1800 on the Greek side) and loses altitude towards the east. The lower eastern section is part of this area in North-east Greece. The hillsides are cloaked in oak forests, sub-Mediterranean scrubland with Christ’s Thorn bush, Eastern Strawberry Tree and Judas Tree, and rocky grasslands.

Unlike the Bulgarian side of the Eastern Rhodopes the smaller Greek part of the mountains is hard to visit, simply because there are very few roads and villages.

Dadia forest

In the very eastern part, the Rhodopes end in the valley of the Evros. Here in these foothills lies the huge Dadia forest, which is a mix of oak and Turkish Pine (Pinus brutia) forest (the latter reaches the western edge of its range in Dadia). In the forests are many open, shrubby and rocky areas and river valleys.
Dadia is home to many reptiles, plants and birds. A large number of them are eastern species that find their western limit here in Dadia forest.
Above all this area is famous for its population of birds of prey, which includes Black and Griffon Vulture, five species of eagles and Levant Sparrowhawk.

The naturalist top 10

Ten highlights of your visit to exploring Northeast Greece

Watch the vultures from the raptor hide in Dadia.

Go for mountain walks from the mountain village of Stavroupouli.

Walk the limestone Nestos Gorge, with its rich flora and butterfly world.

Search for reptiles in the open woodlands and river beds.

See the sun set over the Vistonida lagoon and monastery of Porto Lagos.

Explore the dunes and riparian forests of the Nestos. They form Greece’s largest riverine forest and has a rich flora and fauna.

The river floodplains and flowery grasslands of the Rhodopi are alive with butterflies and dragonflies.

Go orchid hunting in the limestone coastal hills. Over 20 Eastern Mediterranean species can be found here.

Explore the Evros’ spectacular birdlife. Make sure you make the preparations for this in advance.

Head over to the Avas gorge to search for Masked Shrike and Rock Nuthatch.

Birds, butterflies and wildflowers  – The flora and fauna of Dadia, Evros and Nestos

Flora

North-east Greece lacks the botanical diversity hotspots of the mountain ranges elsewhere in Greece, but that’s hardly a detraction for western visitors, as most plants are of new and exotic anyway. In spring you stand amidst the thousands of grape hyacinths, peacock and crown anemones, dwarf irises or drifts of yellow asphodels – an unforgettable experience.
More specifically eastern specialties include the Pontic Fritillary, Reichenbach’s Iris (common in Dadia and the Rhodopes), Oriental Iris (Evros Delta), Greek Silk-vine (Periploca graeca; in the dunes).
North-east Greece has a good range of orchids. Here too, it is the Balkan and eastern specialties that catch the eye: Spurred Helleborine (Cephalanthera epipactoides), Four-spotted Orchid, Roman Orchid (Dactylorhiza romana), Horned Woodcock Orchid (Ophrys cornuta) and Balkan Lizard Orchid (Himantoglossum caprinum) serve as examples. The most common species in the region are Green-winged, Mammose, Long-lipped Tongue and Pink Butterfly Orchid are probably the most common orchids in the region.

Birds

North-east Greece is one of the hotspots for birds in Europe. The region has great wetlands, some steppes and dry arable fields, a lot of woodland and scrub and some cliffs, and all of these are great bird habitat.
The wetlands offer the best birding. Herons, spoonbills, Pygmy Cormorants, pelicans, glossy ibis, flamingo, ducks, geese, terns and waders are all present.

Many of them are found primarily in winter (e.g. flamingo, pygmy cormorant and the pelicans) as the birds from the nearby colonies disperse to the coast and wintering birds from Russia move down to the coast. The region, especially Evros, lies on the main migration route north, and migrant breeders from eastern Europe and Russia are plentiful.
In the fields, steppes and saltmarsh are more waders, larks, Black-headed Wagtails and Buntings and one of the region’s star species, the Spur-winged Plover.
The scrub and open woodlands support a dazzling number of songbirds (e.g. Barred and Olive-tree Warblers, and Masked Shrike). North-east Greece and the Rhodopes is sometimes called the best raptor region in Europe. This is probably true when you look at the number of species (three species of vultures and seven of eagles). Their numbers, however, are lower than for example in Spain or France.

Reptiles and amphibians

The reptile and amphibian fauna of northern Greece is together with that of adjacent Southern Bulgaria  he richest in all of Europe. Many species are either easy to search out or simply encounter.
The tortoises (both Greek and Herman’s occur) are numerous, especially in the Dadia and the mountains. Esculapian, Dice, Grass and Montpellier and Caspian Whip Snakes are probably the most numerous of the 14(!) snake species that occur here. Among them are also the Nose-horned and Ottoman Vipers, which both have very potent venom. Other typical species of the region are Sand Boa, Kotschy’s Gecko and European Glass Lizard, the continent’s largest legless lizard.

Butterflies and dragonflies

Not many visitors come down to North-east Greece for the butterflies and dragonflies. Although there are a number of interesting species, most appear in summer – a period that few people visit the region then as it has fewer attractions. In spring the Eastern Festoon is a common butterfly. By sharp contrast, the False Apollo, a Turkish species with an outpost in the region, is very local and rare. Little Tiger Blues are also numerous.
The Nestos is a dragonfly hotspot, with Common and River Clubtails, Green Snaketail and Odalisque (in the middle section).

Top 10 species

Ten superb plant and animal species of Northeast Greece

One of the few plant species on the continent that survived all the ice ages. This relict from the tertiary grows on north-facing slopes and is a Rhodopi endemic.

This rare pelican species breeds in several colonies in north-western Greece (including lake Kerkini) and winters in the coastal marshes of North-east Greece.

Outside south-western Spain and (reintroduced) Southern France, Dadia is the last stronghold of this largest raptor of Europe on the continent.

This beautiful relative of the lapwing is widespread in tropical regions of Asia and Africa, and just reaches Europe in North-east Greece. Here it breeds in the salt marshes of the Nestos and Evros deltas.

Essentially a Turkish orchid that just reaches Dadia forest, where it isn’t even that rare.

Probably the most widespread orchid in the region, and a species that is endemic to the southern Balkans and Turkish coast.

This rare smaller nephew of the Lesser Purple Emperor is found in the large poplar forests along the Nestos river.

One of the most spectacular looking snakes of Europe is quite numerous in the foothills of the Rhodopi and Dadia.

Both tortoises are common throughout the region and a frequent but always delightful enounter on your walks.

North-east Greece and adjacent Turkey and Bulgaria is the stronghold for this predator, which is in size somewhere between a wolf and a fox. The Nestos river valley is a classic locality for them.

Routes and practicalities

Even though North-east Greece is a great region for birds and wildlife, and despite access to this part of Europe via the international airport of Thessaloniki being easy, not many naturalists come out here. The few who do seem to prefer a circuit via Kerkini lake and then westwards to Prespa, rather than going back and forth along the Greek north coast.
And it must be said that access is not getting better now that one of the best sites for wildlife, the Evros Delta that has become harder to access. The tension at the border was always tangible, but this has intensified particularly now that there is a refugee crisis along this border with the European Union.

This being said, there is still a lot of interest in this region that is accessible. And for the Evros Delta, there are still guided tours, for which you can contact the Evros Delta visitors centre (info@evros-delta.gr).

Getting around in North-east Greece

Travelling in the area is straightforward. There is one motorway straight through the area all the way from Thessaloniki in the west to Alexandroupouli in the east. From there, a provincial road swings north and passes along eastern flank of the Dadia forest.
All reserves are accessed from this main road. Roads are overall in very good state and all areas are easily reached, with the exception of the northern mountains. Here are very few roads and most of them are untarmacked and frequently flooded after heavy rainfall.
Note that North-east Greece is not a place where many people come to hike. There are many tracks and trails from locals, but most are not signposted. Many official tourist trails look great on maps but are in reality in derelict state because no-one cares for them once they’ve been constructed. So, all in all, travelling in North-east Greece requires more of a traveler’s mindset than that of the holiday-maker – you are bound to arrive at places that are not as idyllic as you had hoped they would be, and bound to find trails in a state that is less than desirable, but the great landscapes, ecosystems and wildlife should make up for that.

Sustainable tourism

There are several initiatives in North-east Greece designed to stimulate nature-based tourism, such as the establishment of the National Parks of East Macedonia and Thrace (covering Nestos the Nestos Delta and the lagoons of Ismarida) and of Dadia-Lefkimi-Soufli. A third is the spot is the aforementioned Visitors centre of the Evros Delta.
All of these places suffer from the typical Greek-EU problem that there is money to set things up, but not to maintain them. And because run-down facilities look worse than no facilities at all, some of these sites have a distinct past-their-prime feel.
But they are still running and need your support. This is not only important for the ecotourism infrastructure itself. In a region where nature conservation is often more a by-product of low-intensity land use than deliberate design, this is significant.  Conservation is not, with some exceptions, high on the agenda for many locals. By using facilities, you demonstrate a reserves’ importance to sceptics as well as, directly and indirectly, supporting nature conservation. For much the same reason, carry your camera or binoculars with you, so people identify you as ecotourist.

The book

The Crossbill Guides are the most comprehensive nature travel guides available. Each Crossbill Guide covers in depth descriptions on landscape, habitats, geology and all the species groups, and links these to routes where this can best be seen.

These routes are typically a mixture of walking trails and car routes with stops and short walks. Combined, these routes cover all the sites for birds, butterflies, dragonflies, plants, mammals and reptiles. They are also set out to give you the finest examples of the ecosystems and geological features. In short, everything for nature lovers.

The Crossbill Guide that covers North-east Greece also describes the adjacent Bulgarian of the Eastern Rhodopes. In short, it contains:

 

  • 256 pages
  • 8 detailed routes and 10 additional sites in North-east Greece (plus 10 routes and 13 sites in the Bulgarian Eastern Rhodopes)
  • detailed information on landscape, ecology, geology, landscape history, flora and fauna.
  • Information on where to watch birds
  • Tips for wildlife watching and finding orchids

The authors

Dirk Hilbers (NL, 1976), set up the Crossbill Guides Foundation and travels Europe to research the guidebooks. This is the 17th guide he worked on. As a biologist, when not in the field, Dirk Hilbers is a free-lance writer and lecturer in the field of nature education and environmental ethics.

Alex Tabak (NL, 1976) is an ecologist specialised in field surveys of flora, vegetation, reptiles, amphibians and butterflies. He works partly in the Netherlands en partly in Greece.

Herman Dierickx (Be, 1958) is an author who has specialised in writing articles on environmental issues, nature and nature conservation in Belgium.

Albert Vliegenthart (NL, 1975) works at de Vlinderstichting – the Dutch Butterfly Conservency, and is specialised in butterflies and dragonflies, next to being a keen birdwatcher.