THRACE & MACEDONIA, NORTH-EAST GREECE, WITH DAVID DENNIS, BASED AT ALEXANDROUPOLI AND THEN DRAMA, 6 – 14 APRIL 2022. WE ARE GREATLY INDEBTED TO MARTIN WARREN AND MICHAEL DE COURCY WILLIAMS FOR THEIR GENEROUS ASSISTANCE WITH SPECIES AND LOCATION SUPPORT
Wednesday 6 April
Having flown into Thessaloniki, and about half-way to our first destination, Alexandroupoli, we took a side-road off the E90 past Kavala up through the small town of Karkadia in search of some suitable habitat and a break in the journey after 90 minutes travelling. A hairpin on an uphill slope was chosen and quickly we were amongst Wall Brown (Lasiommata megera), Queen of Spain Fritillary (Issoria lathonia), Brown Argus (Aricia agestis), Orange-tip (Anthocharis cardamines), Gruner’s Orange-tip (Anthocharis gruneri), Clouded Yellow (Colias crocea), Common Blue (Polyommatus icarus) (some sans cell-spot), Small Copper (Lycaena phlaeas), and a possible Nettle-tree (Libythea celtis). I was also very taken with the carpets of a soft mauve/pink anemone, Anemone coronaria. Our hotel, the 31 Doors, was duly located, and then a taverna and a beer.
Thursday 7 April
A relatively leisurely start to the day took us north, finally reaching our destination where another track and stream joined from the right between two large rocky outcrops, arriving there around 10am. The precise location will remain undisclosed, being a 'sensitive site', as you'll see in a moment.
Almost at once a female False Apollo (Archon apollinus), a rare and beautiful species in lovely condition, was seen and eagerly photographed, with males spotted later. The females were scarce and I only saw one more during the morning, persistently diving into the dry grass and making photography difficult. In mostly warm sunshine, and little breeze, we added Green-veined White (Pieris napi), Grecian Copper (Lycaena ottomana), and Southern Festoon (Zerynthia polyxena) to the tally.
At a nearby location, a brief rain shower didn’t amount to much but had caused an Eastern Festoon (Zerynthia cerisyi) to take shelter, brilliantly spotted, and which turned out to be the only one seen on the trip. In less than top conditions we also added Powdered Brimstone (Gonepteryx farinosa), Wood White (Leptidea sinapis), Speckled Wood (Pararge aegeria), and later on up the track towards the small cave chapel found several Nettle-trees and a Green Hairstreak (Callophrys rubi). The steep, irregular steps up to the chapel couldn’t be resisted, and it was very ordinary, but the descent was another matter with much reliance on the side rail!
Friday 8 April
A sunny, blue-sky day, albeit a cool start. The destination today was coastal, the Cyclops Cave near Makri, only 15 minutes or so away to the west.
On the road down to the port we stumbled across the car park for the Cave, and pulled in, the only car there. The anemones welcomed us, extensive drifts of this lovely plant. This is a super habitat, olive groves on the inland side, heavily vegetated slope down to the distant sea on the other. Wall Browns entertained us along the track until, in an olive grove clearing, a Scarce Swallowtail (Iphiclides podalirius) was making persistent amorous advances towards a regular Swallowtail (Papilio machaon gorganus), much chasing each other about. Other butterflies along this path included Peacock (Inachis io), Red Admiral (Vanessa atalanta), Nettle-trees, Large White (Pieris brassicae) and Small White (Pieris rapae), Brown Argus, Bath White (Pontia daplidice) and probably a Clouded Yellow form helice. The Cyclops Cave was a pretty typical limestone type but nice to share a small bit of Greek mythology – fortunately, Cyclops wasn’t in at the time.
Saturday 9 April
On another beautiful sunny morning with the temperature forecast to hit 24° we returned to Thursday’s 'special site', parking-up by 10 o’clock with the gauge reading 18° already. During an otherwise quiet, peaceful morning, a Parisien couple arrived, brother and sister. Male False Apollos were fairly common, and readily distinguishable now, and I only saw one female which dropped momentarily onto the ground allowing just one photo before heading into the thicket. My main preoccupation became the attempted photo of the only new species for the day, an Eastern Pale Clouded Yellow Colias erate), lemon-yellow in flight (in which it always was). It followed a distinct circuit flying along the edge of a large field for at least 150 yards until reaching a corner where a light breeze accelerated it in the opposite direction only to disappear for a while before resuming the route. I chased it 3 times without success and eventually conceded defeat having clocked-up at least a kilometre!
After lunch, we walked away from ‘the’ site down the track taking another one to the left until the railway track was reached. The flowering blackthorn was beautiful against the blue sky but butterflies were at a premium, so after a while we returned to the car.
Sunday 10 April
Headed west today on the E90 for the Xanthi exit, on a cool, calm, overcast morning with the odd bit of sun, our time in Alexandroupoli now over. Took the northern loop towards Stavropouli stopping opportunistically at 10 o'clock for a coffee somewhere near Gorgona, only to find that it was no longer a coffee shop but a craft centre of the Islamic Pomac people. We spent a fascinating hour learning about this oppressed culture and bought gifts for our grandchildren.
On deserted roads through forest and scrub habitats we continued towards Stavroupoli and stopped near Paranesti to find a lunch stop. The spot produced a strong colony of Nettle-trees, and also Grecian and Small Coppers (Lycaena phlaeas), Green Hairstreak, Orange-tip and Gruner’s Orange-tip, Clouded Yellow, Common Blue, Brown Argus, Dingy Skipper (Erynnis tages) and Comma (Polygonia c-album), the last two being new for the trip. As Drama’s mountains came into view – probably Mount Menikio – we saw it was topped by a vast black cloud with lightning flashing horizontally across it.
Finding our hotel validated the town’s name: the road system is chaotic, a combination of poor signage, narrow one-way streets, many twists and turns, the saving grace being the un-hurried reactions of local drivers.
Monday 11 April
A showery day had been forecast (though none actually fell) and the day had started overcast. We soon found the main road to the west, duly taking a right turn towards Xiropotamus hoping for a a productive hillside but found it to be overgrazed and in the flow of a very cold northerly wind.
Having dropped down to the main road we soon took a right turn through Petrousa on the road to Pirghi with the snow-capped Mount Falakron range towering darkly ahead of us, inviting several photo stops. Finding the road/track beyond Pirghi wasn’t easy to Volakas wasn’t at all obvious. But, at last, we found the way ahead, an interminable, steady zig-zag climb, eventually passing over the watershed then dropping down on a white gravel road until the Volakas ski centre link road was reached, and below that, the marble quarry, massive white blocks being removed by lorries, one cube per truck.
I was hoping to show David the ‘Mikroklisoura hairpin’ where Alan Bernard and I had butterflied successfully in 2013 but the site had been devastated by an apparent flood and, after a brief stop, we pushed on across the Nestos river to Potami, seeking the road to Dhelta which looked promising. The assistance was sought from some local people - who disagreed with one another! - eventually escorted us to the road and bridge across the Despatis river. A track to the right just before the bridge looked promising so we parked-up to eat our baguettes, sheltered from the bitterly cold north wind by the raised boot lid. The opposite bank maybe looked better, worth a visit? Despite the poor conditions, singletons of a roosting Eastern Bath White (Pontia edusa), Clouded Yellow, Queen of Spain Fritillary, Small Copper and a Gruner’s Orange-tip each made an appearance.
Tuesday 12 April
A sunny day dawned, but cold at 3°, ahead of the 78km drive to the Nestos Gorge, heading south from Drama towards Kavala and the E90, going east to find the exit for Toxotes. The Gorge car park was entered c10.30 on what was now a lovely sunny day. We walked up the footpath alongside the river, upstream into the stunningly beautiful landscape. The freedom to chase butterflies was restricted by the narrow path and steep banks but a Small Blue (Cupido minimus) entertained us by its fixation to David’s right boot, and then, back in the car park, followed a pair of courting Brimstones (Gonepteryx rhamni), the female finally playing ‘hard to get’. Other species seen today were: Orange-tip, and Gruner’s Orange-tip, Clouded Yellow, Peacock, Balkan Green-veined White (Pieris balcana), Green-veined White, Common Blue, Small Heath (Coenonympha pamphilus), Wall, Red Admiral, Brown Argus, Large White, Holly Blue (Celastrina argiolus), and Small Copper.
A visit to the ‘panoramic view’ high above the Gorge ensued, a somewhat tedious 10km climb zig-zagging all the way to the top. The meandering Nestos river way below was worth the effort, even if the view was a bit hazy.
Wednesday 13 April
This would be our last full day in the field, so, on a chilly but blue-sky morning, I navigated David out of Drama for the drive back to Potomoi, this time sticking to the main road to Volakas, a return to the Despatis river, and for us to take Michael de Courcy Williams' recommendation along the right-side road to the small chapel at the end. This is a beautiful spot, the riverside track yielding a fine tally, namely, the two Orange-tips, Eastern Pale Clouded Yellow - and still no chance of a photograph! - Clouded Yellow, Peacock, a beaten-up Large Tortoiseshell (Nymphalis polychloros) which had flown overhead several times without stopping until it finally gave us a chance to check it out on the ground, Grizzled Skipper (Pyrgus malvae) and Dingy Skippers, Green-underside Blue (Glaucopsyche alexis), Eastern Bath White, Wall Brown, a pristine female Large Wall (Lasiommata maera), Queen of Spain Fritillary, Brimstone, Wood White, Nettle-tree, Small Copper, Common Blue, Holly Blue, Brown Argus, Peacock, Southern Festoon, and Green Hairstreak. We ate our lunch sitting at a picnic table, very much at peace with our surroundings.
Thursday 14 April
An early start today for the two-hour transit to Thessaloniki airport. A dream drive on empty roads, the early sun largely behind us, and good progress was being made onto the E90. But suddenly we became immersed in thick fog and the Google Maps sat nav voice was telling us to take a detour, advice we took, in my case with a touch of misgiving. But it was good advice and after topping-up the petrol tank reached the Hertz depot at 9.15, had the car checked and approved, and we were quickly shuttled to the terminal. This is a peaceful kind of airport, hopefully not the calm before the pending storm of Gatwick and the M25 journey home!