Before I begin, I must apologise again for the lack of posts- schoolwork & lack of ‘bloggable’ events have meant that I’m unfortunately not posting as much as I’d like to. Anyway…
There have always been five places in the Western Palearctic that I’ve wanted to travel to: Morocco, Israel, Turkey, Arctic Norway & Cyprus. The first is ruled out due to my rather annoying allergies (namely sesame in this instance; it’s absolutely everywhere there apparently) and the very fragile political situation in the Middle East has unfortunately eliminated the second & third options. When travelling, in my case it also has to be family-friendly; thus, the climate at the fourth option meant that idea went down like a lead balloon.
That left Cyprus, and it wasn’t really on my radar until I was told about it by Julian Bhalerao via my dad. He had been in late March/early April, and said it was brilliant. This was quite some time ago, and the wheels were set in motion which culminated in a week-long holiday being booked in Southern Cyprus during the turn of the month. The excitement builded up for months: my dream destination, in peak migration period. Great adventure awaited, and just remember that I denote lifers in CAPITAL LETTERS…
Day 1- Wednesday 29th March- Getting to Know Cyprus
Having got up at the crack of dawn (3am!!), we made the drive down to Gatwick in fairly good time. Security was smooth & largely uneventful, and, having eaten our breakfast in the departure lounge, strangely in almost the exact spot where I’d sat before a flight to Fuerteventura three years ago, we took off in fairly good time & we were soon over the skies for what turned out to be a fairly comfortable 4 1/2 hour flight. We ate up the miles, progressing steadily over the Alps, Balkans & Turkey, until we landed at Paphos Airport.
Whilst obtaining the car, Dad & I steadily built up the list: several House Sparrows flying around the terminal, Hooded Crows wheeling around us & a Kestrel hurtling through as fast as the wind would take it. Unfortunately, the gull sp. which flew over our heads evaded the swiftly-drawn pairs of binoculars. The drive to the villa added yet more birds: the only two Sparrowhawks of our trip whisked past us, a Fan-tailed Warbler zitted away & a Greenfinch sang from an unseen perch. We quickly realised that both Hooded Crow & House Sparrow were abundant and will pop up at you looking like something more interesting (namely raptors and other LBJs respectively). Kestrels were also noticeably commoner than back in the UK.
On the drive we started to adjust to the Cypriot landscape: labels were printed in several languages at once (mostly Greek, English & Russian, but also some Mandarin, Japanese & German), towns were spelt differently according to who you were (the capital city has four different spellings, all perfectly viable) & there was the strange sight of a branch of McDonalds and an authentic Greek tavern next to each other along the main street of Paphos/Pafos. The temperature was also lovely: it was 20 degrees, yet there was a light breeze blowing in from the south-west.
We arrived at the rented bungalow/villa we were staying in after about 45 minutes, and from here on in the avifauna got a whole lot better: a scrubby valley across the road yielded a male Pallid Harrier hunting over the south end, a Red-rumped Swallow far too quick for the cameras, and several common birds like Corn Bunting, Lesser Whitethroat & Blackcap. After a quick swim, Dad & I explored the valley further; he had found several good birds in there which I desperately wanted to see. However, the first lifer I got was a bird Dad hadn’t found in his previous exploration: a cracking male CYPRUS PIED WHEATEAR perched atop a distant tree. We swiftly refound two more lifers for me, CRETZSCHMAR’S BUNTING & RUPPELL’S WARBLER, in the north end of the valley. The light was fading quickly, so we made our way up to the top of the valley to try & track down the wheatear.
This valley had several tracks running alongside it, including one on its east face which led directly underneath where the wheatear was singing earlier. We progressed up the track quickly, and flushed a wheatear ahead of us: it was a Cyprus Pied Wheatear, but a female this time rather than a male: it was very jumpy & soon disappeared. However, the male showed very well atop his favourite tree & singing his heart out presumably to attract the female we had just flushed.
We then made our way back to the villa where pitta bread & taramasalata, a swim, and then a meal out at the Corrallo restaurant in Coral Bay awaited us, before we retired to our beds in eager anticipation of what was to come.
Day 2- Thursday 30th March- Not a Bad Start
We were up & out by 8am, driving SW towards Paphos Headland, where there is a small archaeological site positioned on a wild rocky headland jutting out towards Libya. As such, this place is a hotbed for migrants, turning up such gems as Crimson-winged Finch, Olive-tree Warbler & Rustic Bunting all in the last decade, and we were mildly hoping for a good bird here today: it had rained overnight, thus grounding any nocturnal migrants. It all started well: eleven Black-winged Stilts flew over the car park, several Sardinian Warblers were flicking around in the grass outside the entrance, and we saw our first definite Yellow-legged Gull of the trip soaring away to the east.
Then came the biggest shock of the whole holiday.
We were busy photographing the local Hooded Crows on the roofs of one of the various buildings that housed the mosaics of ancient Paphos, when I suddenly noticed a flicker of movement out of the corner of my eye coming from the raised platform away to our left: I didn’t see definitively what it was as my brain barely registered it, all I noticed was a grey blob because it soon moved out of my line of sight. I gestured vaguely in its direction at Dad, asking him if he could see what it was, as we had just seen our only Black Redstart of the trip there. Thinking it was that, Dad picked up his bins, and immediately his expression changed from one of nonchalance to confusion, and then to disbelief. He said to me that it was a bunting-like bird with a yellow-face, and then we realised what it was.
Thanks to Dad’s journey here 30 years ago with his dad & my grandfather, he had already seen all the specialities here, and had said to me the previous day that he wasn’t expecting any lifers: the Finsch’s Wheatears had departed already, and there were currently no lifers for him present on the entire island with the exception of Armenian Gull, and even that was scarcely being seen. This bird on the platform was a lifer for him though, as he had never ventured anywhere near where this bird bred. As such, the realisation of this bird’s identity brightened us both up to no end.
The fact that an adult CINEREOUS BUNTING of the race cinereacea in summer plumage had casually popped up in front of us elated the pair of us to no end, and it proceeded to show fairly well on the platform before dropping off & flying away into the ruins. We were ecstatic: here we were, in an archaelogical site once walked by Greeks & Romans thousands of years ago, and the first bird we see was one only recorded a handful of times on the entire island, and hadn’t been seen here since 2015! (Incidentally enough the last record was also on Paphos Headland, one of five recorded that year)
Dad quickly texted Ashley Saunders of Oriole Birding, who was spending his last day on the island today with his group, to let him know that the bird was here. We then waited for him & afterwards moved on to explore the rest of the headland.
We soon encountered one of the resident Crested Larks showing well on a rock, as well as three Cretzschmar’s Buntings, more House Sparrows & a ring-tail Pallid Harrier coming in off the sea.
We then set out to explore the southern end of the headland. The whole place was filled with long grasses dotted with wildflowers all around us. From here we flushed a Quail (my first for 6 years embarassingly!), lots of Corn Buntings & a Hoopoe. We traipsed further, uncovering a long-overdue lifer for me, RED-THROATED PIPIT, on the boundary fence, as well as several Yellow Wagtails of both the feldegg & flava races.
Dad then got a text from Ash, informing him of the presence of an EASTERN ORPHEAN WARBLER near to where the bunting was. We hightailed it over there, and saw the bird fairly easily, as well as several Lesser Whitethroats, and, more importantly for me, EASTERN SUBALPINE WARBLER, my fourth lifer that morning. We then headed off towards the lighthouse & the north end of the headland. It was very quiet, save for a female Cyprus Pied Wheatear, another Pallid Harrier in off, and a Marsh Harrier going over. We swung back around & made our way out after a long morning, stopping for a very showy Hoopoe along the path to the entrance gate.
We then decided to walk along the track outside the perimeter fence: with it now being 10:30am, it was far busier than we would have liked, but that didn’t seem to perturb the birds there too much. We soon encountered two SPUR-WINGED LAPWINGS along the path standing on some rocks, which were wheeling around the rocks squealing in their typical fashion. We also found a couple of Black-headed Wagtails feeding in the grass along the fringes of the path, as well as White Wagtail & a Hooded Crow.
We then came to the very tip of the headland in a rocky area with some sand around the place. This area in particular was alive with wheatears: mostly Northern & Isabelline, but we also uncovered a nice male Desert Wheatear as well. This stretch was very fruitful indeed.
Unfortunately, we then had to make our way back to the villa, though a delicious lunch of ham & lountza pitta with Cyprus-grown lettuce & avocadoes helped ease our pain. We toasted Cinereous Buntings & eternal birding fortune. Then a time of relaxing in the heat of the early afternoon, mostly involving swimming & lounging around poolside.
We set off for Avagas Gorge late in the afternoon; the misleading directions in the various guide books & maps we had with us meant we took a wrong turn which took us through the gorge itself & onto the northern ‘plateau’. Almost immediately, we had two MASKED SHRIKES in the trees surrouding the small, isolated monastery that had positioned itself up there. Whilst up there we also located a Cyprus Pied Wheatear, two Red-rumped Swallows zooming around & a Sardinian Warbler scratching away in a nearby bush.
We then figured out where we were supposed to be & drove up to Avagas Gorge, but stopped in an area where Ash Saunders had seen Caspian Stonechat just days before we arrived. Unfortunately no Caspian Stonechat (or any Stonechat for that matter), but we did have a nice CHUKAR by the road on the way down, as well as both dark-throated & pale-throated forms of Eastern Black-eared Wheatear.
We pulled up to the Avagas Gorge car park to find it virtually deserted. We parked up & walked through the scrub to the base of the gorge, with Sardinian Warblers flicking around the bushes around us.
We then heard something singing to the right of us: that can’t be a Sardinian we said to ourselves, and it wasn’t. A cracking male CYPRUS WARBLER proceeded to sing in the bushes right in front of us! A stunning bird, this was my second endemic of the day, and also my EIGHTH lifer! It was just a shame to see spent shotgun cartridges littering the floor of the gorge; we were half-expecting to see evidence of hunting during our visit, but it was a sorry sight to see it in the flesh.
We were losing the light very quickly, so we raced off to Cape Drepanum (of Bar-tailed Desert Lark fame… lightning really does strike twice, but you just have to wait eleven years). The only larks there today were of the Crested variety, though there were plenty of other bits for us in the fields: a female Desert Wheatear & a male Black-eared Wheatear kept the wheatear theme going, and we also rooted out a Tawny Pipit, two Short-toed Larks & another Quail. Suddenly, we put up a huge flock of birds: they were all Yellow Wagtails! Once they landed, we scoured through them: though they were mostly feldegg (Black-headed), there were a couple of flava (Blue-headed) and even a thunbergi (Grey-headed) in there, along with several examples of dombrowskii (Blue-headed x Grey-headed) & superciliaris (Blue-headed x Black-headed) intergrades. We soon lost all the light, so we returned home for a dry takeaway roast chicken. We saw a very respectable 59 species on our first full day.
Parts II & III will be coming soon…