For a long time both students and teacher were pining for another excursion abroad. The students of my herpetological study group and I kept dreaming of foreign trips, but they kept being postponed. Until this year when the long-awaited excursion could take place. After an incredibly successful trip to the Peloponnese in 2019, this year we shifted our attention from the southwest of Greece to the northeast. A whole new range of species can be found there, from the typical Balkan species and widespread Central European taxa, to several specialties which only enter Greece here.
During our trip we experienced not the most favourable weather conditions. In general the Eastern Mediterranean bassin had an unusual spring with cold and dry conditions that abruptly changed into hot and dry weather. We had the latter weather type and had a few hours in the morning to search after which it got much too hot. In the afternoon thunderstorms with the occasional rain shower also provided difficult conditions so herping wasn't easy. Moreover, some of our desiderata are seemingly in decline and some lizard species such as Snake-eyed Lacertid and Meadow Lizard are getting more rare in Greece. The same goes for Fire-bellied Toad which already lives in the inaccesible and restricted military area along the Turkish border. Despite the hard work which was sometimes in vain, we had an excellent trip with many great wildlife encounters. We all enjoyed this amazing region in springtime with a plethora of butterflies, birds, flowers and of course herpetofauna. The Grass Snakes and Yellow-bellied Toads were plentiful which was good for Finn and Jesse. For their school research project they investigated the habitat preferences of both species and they could get plenty of data.
25th of May 2022
Shortly before the trip we read horrifying stories about Schiphol airport. Massive queues and waiting times of over 6 hours, people missing their flight etc. so we decided to be well on time at the airport. Probably due to the early hour we went through the security check smoothly and had some time for breakfast at the Burger King. Only when the plane was about to take off the problems started. A technical malfunction caused a delay of over 3 hours and we had to move to another plane. All netto herping time down the drain, but in the end of the afternoon we finally landed in Thessaloniki. After collecting the rental car we started our long drive east. Our first stop was a beautiful lagune where we saw huge flocks of Flamingos (Phoenicopterus roseus). We also saw the first Eastern Balkan Green Lizards (Lacerta diplochondrodes), Sven spotted a Glass Lizard (Pseudopus apodus) and we found a huge 83 centimeter long Nose-horned Viper (Vipera ammodytes) which was sadly killed by a car.
Shortly before sunset we arrived at the Thalassa Hotel in Alexandroupoli, dropped the luggage and quickly refreshed before going for a tasty pizza in town. The waiters wanted to know which Greek words I knew so I proudly presented my vast knowledge of words I picked up in Greek traffic, but maybe I spoke a bit too loud as people were either laughing or looking horrified...
For our first night excursion we moved to the beach where we encountered Balkan Spadefoot Toads (Pelobates balcanicus) and a beautiful male Conehead Mantis (Empusa fasciata). After playing with the local puppies and the copious amounts of huge Blue Crabs (Callinectes sapidus) we drove back to the hotel. There were several military convoys on the move and basically no other cars apart from our magic school bus blasting techno from the speakers.
26th of May 2022
We rose early and after breakfast at the accommodation we were in the field at the right time. After instructing the students about safety, we set out to find one of our main targets. Barely ten minutes had passed until I spotted a big adult Ottoman Viper (Montivipera xanthina) basking in high grass at the edge of a big bush. Immediate success! This massive individual measured close to 1,40m and was close to shedding its skin. After ample admiration we searched on and I found a second individual which recently shed the skin but I was unable to photograph it. Also Glass Lizards, Eastern Balkan Green Lizards, Snake-eyed Skinks (Ablepharus kitaibelii) and Spur-thighed Tortoises (Testudo graeca) were out in force. In the late morning we searched lower on the slopes were we ran into Swedish herpers Didrik and Otto Claesson who just found a juvenile Ottoman Viper. We exchanged numbers in case of exciting finds and went our seperate ways. In the Evros Delta we searched along a stream and found the first Dice Snake (Natrix tessellata), Balkan Terrapin (Mauremys rivulata), baby Common Toads (Bufo bufo) and plenty of Levant Water Frogs (Pelophylax bedriagae) while Golden Orioles (Oriolus oriolus) were singing their lungs out. During the hot afternoon we searched for a place to swim. I saw some waterfalls on the map and this turned out to be an excellent guess. A beautiful stream with several deeper pools awaited us. Here we also saw the first Yellow-bellied Toads (Bombina variegata) and Eastern Green Lizards (Lacerta viridis) and more Common Toads and Water Frogs. When the temperatures started to drop we tried to reach the known spots for Fire-bellied Toads but were soon stopped by military. We tried to persuade them to let us pass but their hands were tied and there was no chance for us to enter. At the edges of the military zone we could search, but no Fire-bellied Toads for us. We did flip a big board and found a big Caspian Whip Snake (Dolichophis caspius) of 1,60m. Literally a big highlight for all of us! We went for an early dinner in Alexandroupoli at a restaurant with some amazing reviews, but ended up being disappointed. Luckily the evening made up for that. At an abandoned hotel we found big numbers of Levant Water Frogs, Grass Snakes (Natrix natrix), Buresch's Crested Newts (Triturus ivanbureschi), Turkish Geckos (Hemidactylus turcicus) and Bulgarian Bent-toed Geckos (Mediodactylus danilewskii). Afterwards we tried our luck for nocturnal snake activity at a rocky hill. On the road we already found a juvenile Ottoman Viper but at the hill itself we only saw a Green Toad (Bufotes viridis). A bit later than scheduled we went to bed.
27th of May 2022
Again we enjoyed a lovely breakfast at the accommodation and since we were all packed before breakfast, we were soon on the road. On the menu for today was Dadia with its endless rolling hills of open oak forest. This is one of the few places were you can spend a whole day and not meet a single soul. We did meet meet one person here who spent two days in the forest and was keen on getting out, trying to hitch a ride. Our business was inside the forest however, and we weren't keen on driving back, nor being potential people traffickers. So the magic school bus continued its course towards one of my favourite places in Dadia. We searched extensively for the Meadow Lizard but saw very little lizard activity in general. Also not a single wall lizard and only Eastern Green Lizards were plentiful. We did see a massive Grass Snake, a small Smooth Snake (Coronella austriaca), Slow Worm (Anguis fragilis), Glass Lizard, Spur-thighed Tortoise, Hermann's Tortoise, Fire Salamander (Salamandra salamandra) larvae, Yellow-bellied Toads, Agile Frogs (Rana dalmatina) and Water Frogs. So mostly species we could also see in the Netherlands... In the afternoon a huge thunderstorm approached. Just when we arrived at a good place to observe vultures, it started to rain. We drove around a bit and searched in between showers but only found some more Grass Snakes and Water Frogs but also saw a Black Stork (Ciconia nigra). In the town of Dadia we got some dinner in the only restaurant that was open which was very tasty and very cheap. Also a massive watermelon turned up in the car... In Dadia we also ran into Loïc completely randomly which was a fun coincidence. In the evening we searched for newts and just outside of Dadia we already found some Common Newts (Lissotriton vulgaris) at a place hinted to us by Loïc. At the second stop we saw many larvae of the species but sadly no adults. Eastern Tree Frogs (Hyla orientalis), Water Frogs, European Pond Terrapins (Emys orbicularis), Balkan Terrapins and Grass Snakes made up for that though. On top of that we also saw several Giant Water Bugs (Lethocerus patruelis). Just when I told the students these terrifying insects can fly, one of them took to the sky and flew off.
28th of May 2022
In the early morning we wanted to try our luck for Blotched Snake. We had just visited the Salgamis Bakery where they sell some delicious and affordable food, when we got a text from our Swedish friends. The content of the text made us drive even faster than usual and within ten minutes we met up with them. They had found a beautiful Blotched Snake (Elaphe sauromates) and we were very grateful that they notified us! We searched ourselves as well but only found more Grass Snakes, Dices Snakes and Caspian Whip Snakes besides both tortoise species and Eastern Balkan Green Lizards. We also saw many rubber boats, oars and life vests discarded in the bushes showing the harsh reality that a visit to the delta is not a fun outing for everyone... We did some roadcruising for European Ground Squirrel but did not succeed. While driving around we also kept our eyes open for potential habitat of Fire-bellied Toad. During the hottest part of the day we drove to our favourite swim place again and enjoyed the bird bonanza of Thrace along the way. Bee-eaters (Merops apiaster), Rollers (Coracias garrulus), Hoopoes (Upupa epops) and Storks (Ciconia ciconia) are always highlights. At the swimplace the usual suspects turned up although Tieme also spotted a female Common Newt in the stream this time. In the late afternoon we searched in some potentially interesting habitat but only found more of the common species although Finn found our first Worm Snake (Xerotyphlops vermicularis) of the trip. The heat soon drove us into a nearby stream for a second swim session where Dice Snakes were plentiful. In Alexandroupoli we searched for a long-awaited Gyros meal and found an excellent place for it. While the sun was setting we drove into the Evros delta to listen for Fire-bellied Toads at potential spots but only heard Tree Frogs and Levant Water Frogs. Nearby we searched for snakes but only Grass Snakes and Dice Snakes showed up. Roadcruising in the area also didn't deliver much, apart from the odd Green Toad. So it was back to the hotel for a drink on the balcony.
29th of May 2022
We had to drive to Thessaloniki today, but we all felt not ready to leave Thrace. We had one last try for Ottoman Vipers, but the sky was overcast and it was surprisingly chilly. Although we did run into our Swedish friends one last time, there was very little reptile activity. It was time to say goodbye to Thrace and to our watermelon which accidentally fell of the cliff. The next stop sounded promising as several people had found Sandboa there this year. Sadly the cold weather conditions were confined to places were we could have used some sun. When we arrived there the temperatures were soaring and with all rocks already flipped several times, we only found additional Worm Snakes. We drove towards a nice gorge but got completely stuck in traffic and decided to skip this overcrowded place. We did see an Eastern Montpellier Snake (Malpolon insignitus) cross the road but it was a little tricky to stop with 120km/h. We decided to go for a swim at a deserted beach with some "abandoned houses". Here Bas discovered his own strength and learned something about locks. In the end of the afternoon we arrived at the shores of a big lake where we had high hopes. We saw several roadkill snakes such as Caspian Whip Snake, Eastern Montpellier Snake and Four-lined Snake (Elaphe quatuorlineata). During our search we saw Grass Snake, Dice Snake, Caspian Whip Snake and Finn Spotted a Four-lined Snake. The density of Green Lizards was through the roof here and we also saw multiple tortoises, terrapins and geckos. A short drive later we arrived at the accommodation for one night, dropped our luggage and went for a tasty hamburger in Pefka. Herping buddy Ilias Strachinis came by shortly to say hello, but was unable to join us for our night excursion sadly. He did have a good tip for a certain amphian as there was one animal the students desired seeing above all other. We missed it on several previous excursions as it was always too dry, but now we were in luck. A slight rain had fallen and we finally had some realistic (albeit still small) chances. We drove up into the mountains and while the street lights of Thessaloniki were flickering far below us, our flashlights revealed some beautiful beech forest. Agile Frogs and larvae of our target were quickly spotted, as well as Fat Dormice (Glis glis) high in the trees above us. But after walking up the slopes for awhile I could call the others as a stunning Fire Salamander (Salamandra salamandra) was sitting between the leaf litter. The best possible ending of our trip to Greece and needless to say there were many smiling faces in the forest that night!
30th of May 2022
The last day of a trip is never the nicest and although we jumped through all the hoops and hurdles pretty smoothly, the mess at Schiphol airport caused another delay for our flight from Thessaloniki. So we were waiting once more, but at least we didn't have to hurry this time. In the afternoon we all arrived safe and sound, tired but happy back in the Netherlands after another amazing trip.
Although we had to wait for this trip for quite awhile, it was well worth the wait. We saw some huge snakes such as Ottoman Viper, Grass Snake and Caspian Whip Snakes and got to see the rarely observed Blotched Snake. We swam in streams full of Yellow-bellied Toads and walked through meadows teeming with Tortoises. A Fire Salamander at the end of our journey was a worthy species to seal of the trip. We saw a wide variety of herpetofauna and also saw a whole range of iconic birds and insects. Greece proved once more to be the best country for these kind of school trips. Traveling is uncomplicated, people are super friendly, the food delicious and affordable and the biodiversity is just amazing. Again it was such a delight to travel to my favourite country with a mixed group of aspiring young biologists. The students were energetic and enthusiastic, eager to learn, never complaining, never tiring and always up to see more wildlife. Apart from the biological aspect of the trip, it was very interesting for the students to see a different corner of the EU. One where military convoys are a common sight and signs of refugees abound. Apart from their lifelists, their world also got a lot bigger. On to the next trip!
Common Newt (Lissotriton vulgaris schmidtleri)
Buresch's Crested Newt (Triturus ivanbureschi)
Fire Salamander (Salamandra salamandra)
Common Toad (Bufo bufo)
Green Toad (Bufotes viridis)
Yellow-bellied Toad (Bombina variegata scabra)
Eastern Tree Frog (Hyla orientalis)
Balkan Spadefoot Toad (Pelobates balcanicus)
Levant Water Frog (Pelophylax bedriagae)
Marsh Frog (Pelophylax ridibundus)
Agile Frog (Rana dalmatina)
European Pond Terrapin (Emys orbicularis hellenica)
Balkan Terrapin (Mauremys rivulata)
Hermann's Tortoise (Testudo hermanni)
Spur-thighed Tortoise (Testudo graeca ibera)
Slow Worm (Anguis fragilis)
Glass Lizard (Pseudopus apodus thracius)
Snake-eyed Skink (Ablepharus kitaibelii)
Turkish Gecko (Hemidactylus turcicus)
Bulgarian Bent-toed Gecko (Mediodactylus danilewskii)
Eastern Balkan Green Lizard (Lacerta diplochondrodes dobrogica)
Eastern Green Lizard (Lacerta viridis)
Worm Snake (Xerotyphlops vermicularis)
Smooth Snake (Coronella austriaca)
Caspian Whip Snake (Dolichophis caspius)
Four-lined Snake (Elaphe quatuorlineata)
Blotched Snake (Elaphe sauromates)
Eastern Montpellier Snake (Malpolon insignitus)
Grass Snake (Natrix natrix persa)
Dice Snake (Natrix tessellata)
Ottoman Viper (Montivipera xanthina)
Nose-horned Viper (Vipera ammodytes) DOR
Many thanks to Didrik & Otto Claesson, Dominik Hauser, Daniel Kane, Ilias Strachinis, Elias Tzoras, Gert Jan Verspui and Tom Williams.