The wonderful Greek island of sea and sun that teems with wildlife in the spring

A pelican sees the action at Kalloni bay on the Greek island of Lesvos – Horizon International Images / Alamy

The clue was the khaki bags and camera. In mid-April, nine-tenths of a seat on the first direct flight of the year to the Greek island of Lesvos was occupied by wildlife enthusiasts. Here in the Aegean, the shoulder season of tourism takes its toll on nature.

Many tourists visit Greece’s third largest island for its beaches, to taste its olives and imbibe its ouzo, or to embrace a counterculture inspired by the resident poet Sappho, whose speech is in the sixth century-BC about encouraged same-sex relationships. the word “lesbian”. But the sun seekers, foodies and hedonists arrive between June and August, leaving an economic deficit on either side of winter olive picking.

Lesvos has more species of plants, butterflies, conifers, reptiles and amphibians than BritainLesvos has more species of plants, butterflies, conifers, reptiles and amphibians than Britain

Lesvos has more species of plants, butterflies, dragonflies, reptiles and amphibians than Britain – Gabriele Croppi/

Attending to naturalists rather than naturalists fills the gap. “The start of the tourist season is very strong thanks to the bird watchers,” says Stella Tekes, who co-runs the Sea Horse Hotel in Molivos, a fishing village that is a moderate tourist center.

Her sentiment is especially true about Skala Kallonis, a coastal village half an hour’s drive south. George and Effy Kapsalis were the first hoteliers here, and have focused Hotel Malemi – and Skala Kallonis more widely – on wildlife watchers for nearly 30 years. Tourism has been very difficult in the last ten years, George explains, “with the economic crisis in Greece, then the media’s perception of the so-called ‘refugee crisis’, the Covid. He hopes that a renewed enthusiasm for the wild side of Lesvos will help turn things around.

The Kapsalis chose their location wisely. A village statue commemorates Aristotle’s fundamental biological studies at Kallonis: he discovered that dolphins were not fish, as is commonly thought, and described how birds came from eggs. The grounds of the Kapsalises hotel are filled with birdsong: the purring of turtle doves, the symphony of nightmares and the eerie night song of scops owls. Within walking distance, our group of wildlife travelers were expecting long-legged stilts and stilts, colorful bee-eaters and pterodactyl-like black storks. Scores of bird species stop their migration from Africa around Skala Kallonis, so bird watchers go here.

As we progressed further across this extremely rural island – the size of Greater London but with 1 per cent of the population – every car or minibus that drew up brought out binocular-wearing visitors. There was a seasonal WhatsApp group with hundreds of members on the lookout for the birds whose name comes to mind: olive-tree sparrows, spur-winged whistlers, Eleonora’s falcons. Inspired by Aristotle, Lesvos’ reputation for migratory birds surpasses its reputation for human migrants.

Look for the cinereous bunting in the scrub or oak forestLook for the cinereous bunting in the scrub or oak forest

Look for the cinereous bunting in the scrub or oak forest – David Kjaer/

Even beyond the transient birds that sprinkle stardust in spring and autumn, there is much to invade. Although only half the size of Britain, Lesvos harbors more species of plants, butterflies, dragonflies, reptiles and amphibians. In addition, being located 20 times closer to Turkey than mainland Greece, Lesvos has a “uniquely Asian aspect,” explains tour leader Philip Precey, “with animals and plants found nowhere else in the Europe”.

We walked across these specialties in landscapes that were pleasing in contrast. Under a Turkish pine forest, we saw our first cloaked pulse. This piebald, hooked predator with apricot-flushed flanks lives no further west than Macedonia. On the remote hill of Ipsilou, topped by a ninth-century monastery, a singing cinereous bunting marked the segue between spiny foothill scrub and shady oak forest. The sun-yellow face of the bird shone above the ashen garment. Its only European enclave is the three Aegean islands.

Nearby, star agamas – golden, punk-haired reptiles that look more dragon than lizard – bossed rocky skylines atop the highest boulders. They made up for our failure to see a ray sand boa: in battles, the ancient Greeks would clearly pose the only obstacle in Europe to invading enemies.

You can hear the chorus of the Levant water frogsYou can hear the chorus of the Levant water frogs

You can hear the chorus of the Levant water frogs – mike mckavett / Alamy

The names of some animals speak of the east. A Persian squirrel, after screeching on trucks to go under the sun, belly-flopped on a rock, its russet limbs stretched out. Levant water frogs chorus from a drinking tank on a gently cultivated hill. Eastern festoon butterflies fluttered on lacy wings as the males chased females through sage-green olive groves, while females sought out strange plants called birches – “shaped like birth canals,” Philip explained. – to lay eggs on.

All too often, the diversity of the wildlife passed us by. “It’s hard to know where you’re going to look,” said one group member, “when you’ve got a short-tailed serpent eagle overhead, a starry agama in front of you and a barren tail behind you.” However, sneakily, it was the plants that stole the show.

Wherever we wandered – high or low, lush or arid – we encountered spectacles of flowers. Ice-blue stock and candy-pink fly amassed on strands by the sea of ​​Skala Kallonis: this is a place of beach flowers, not beach bums. Covering more than a quarter of the island, traditionally managed olive groves that produce the liquid gold from Lesvos’ main export provide the painter with a palette of land flora, with brush strokes of purple, indigo and sun-blushed yellow . Strolling near the hidden village of Lafionas, Philip identified 20 amazing species of flowering plants in one square meter, including giant head-high golden pom-poms of fennel.

On the slopes of Mount Olympus, humid forests of sweet chestnut gave rise to the historical name of Lassia on Lesvos (“the densely forested one”). We walked between rafts of peacock anemones whose ray flowers flushed intense scarlet or deep purple. Although it is too early for the outlandish Komper orchid, whose tubers are illegally harvested for aphrodisiacs, we count 14 other types of orchid. They included the delightfully named naked male orchid, whose priapic form shows no need for performance enhancement.

Our week ended too soon. It was a wire to leave wealth like that. I yearned to stay longer; others did. Our return flight left half empty, as many wildlife watchers have been known to stay for two weeks. The shoulder season of Lesvos was theirs.

Species to look out for on Lesvos

Racial bunting

This lemon-headed bird is at the top of every visiting bird watcher’s wish list because it is so difficult to see anywhere else in the world. Apart from Lesvos and two neighboring Greek islands, it nests only in the mountains of southern Turkey and southern Iran.

Asterisk agama

This is a sun tanner, and this dragon-like creature usually emerges from the top of cliff faces. Despite its funny appearance, it is quite lonely, never straying far from a bolt hole. It is the only species of agama in Europe; the rest live in Asia or Africa.

Levant water frog

This large amphibian only enters Europe in eastern Greece. Converging at the right time in lakes, ponds, streams and even cisterns, it is especially visible in the spring, when males try to court females by crouching and crawling during the day and night.

Eastern Festival

Ranging from Albania to Iraq, this spectacular spring-flying butterfly graces woodlands and open olive groves. Its lemon wings are stitched black and appear blazing red. Females lay their eggs on the leaves of the birth plant, which later feed the resulting caterpillars.

Eastern Festoon ButterflyEastern Festoon Butterfly

Eastern Festoon Butterfly – Stock Photo Papilio / Alamy

Orchid Komper

Blooming in May, especially on Mount Olympus, this stunning two-foot-tall orchid has pink, hooded flowers that end in long, wavy ribbons. Its natural rarity is exacerbated by commercial harvesting of the root for use in a Turkish aphrodisiac drink called salep.


James Lowen traveled as a guest of Wildlife Travel (01954 713575;, which has two trips in May 2024 from £1,995 per person including flights, accommodation, food, transport and guide.

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