This man-made lake has developed into one of Europe’s most important wetlands and a popular destination for birdwatchers and nature lovers.
We wake before dawn, pull on our thermal underwear and stand motionless for ages in the frigid breeze coming down the slopes of Mount Belles on a boat in the middle of Lake Kerkini. But when the sun slowly creeps over the horizon – lighting up the sky in shades that city-dwellers have forgotten exist – we finally begin to make out shadows of winged creatures on the horizon. We have company. A flock of pelicans slides to a halt on the glassy surface of the water, coming so close that we can make out heir unkempt ‘hairdos’ and their bright red beaks. It’s our first introduction to birdwatching!
Most people think of birdwatching as a hobby reserved for those with specialized knowledge and a lot of patience. But Kerkini – one of Europe’s most important wetlands and part of the Natura 2000 network of protected sites – grants you sights seemingly out of a David Attenborough series, even if you visit it like we did: without prior experience or sophisticated telephoto lenses, just a pair of binoculars, a mobile phone camera, and the company of an experienced guide and photographer.
Impressively, this artificially created freshwater lake attracts over 320 species of birds (of the 450 known to visit or inhabit Greece) and 80,000 human visitors per year. Here one sees sights that call to mind more tropical climes such as flocks of pink flamingos strutting through the water or soaring overhead. You hear the sound made by thousands of ducks when they take flight at once: like a huge bucket filled with glass beads being tipped over. You may even be lucky enough to see lesser white-fronted geese in the distance, one of the rarest birds in Europe.
In the morning you get a plava (a type of flat-bottomed boat) from Mandraki, Kerkini’s harbor, and cross the lake in order to see the birds ‘go fishing’. In the afternoons, with a jeep you return to the banks and wait hidden in the reeds, on the off-chance you see an otter may pass by. Here you can see the water buffalo grazing, or take a selfie with a coypu (a type of large semiaquatic rodent) munching on reeds and completely indifferent to your presence.
The art of becoming invisible
How does one get get up close to the world of birds? With respect and ideally without the ‘scent of civilization’ on you. The smell of soap or perfume betrays one’s presence and drives the birds away. Many birdwatchers conceal themselves in hides on the banks while it is still dark so that at first light the birds are unaware of their presence.
Christos Vlachos, one of the top wildlife photographers in Greece explains, “At first you take photographs as records: you are interested simply in getting the shot and getting up close. As you acquire experience you want to pull back to give the bird space to move freely. You need to know how long you will be across from it. You must not pressure it, then you get the nicest images. The greatest joy comes in those moments when the creature in front of you continues doing what it would do if you weren’t there.”
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