Somewhere in 2007 I started with my desire to see all species of European amphibian and reptile in the wild. Something only the cool kids do obviously. Many trips over the years brought me closer and closer to this goal and at the beginning of this year I only had four species left to see. Two of those I was able to see in the wild in Malta and Israel but luckily my final two species both occur in the same country. This summer it was my goal to complete my quest. Together with my buddy Thijs Hoomans I set a route through Greece - a route which would allow us to see many stunning landscapes, picturesque scenery and pick up those final two species. Thijs is mostly a birder and moreover, the soaring high temperatures didn't allow for much herping anyway. With the sun beating down on the parched landscape, herping was confined to the early morning hours or at night. But even still, most animals keep a slow pace at this time of year and to be honest, so did we. Our main aim was to have a relaxed roadtrip through Greece and just enjoy whatever wildlife would cross our path.
Three days before the trip I got a message from Thijs. He sent me a picture of him in a hospital bed as he had broken his jaw in three places. Riding a bike in the middle of the night is a bit dangerous when you've had a few beers! For some time we were doubting if he could do this trip in his state, but after the doctor gave him green lights (!) we also decided we would just make it work. He could only eat liquid food so we brought a blender to be sure. We weren't sure if it would work out but actually in most restaurants it wasn't a problem at all to liquidise the meals. Breakfast and lunch we made whenever we had access to power.
We flew with Transavia from Amsterdam to Athens. After picking up the rental car we had a very smooth journey south. The roads were brand new and almost abandoned so we could drive a bit faster than was allowed... Our first base of the trip was in the SW of the Peloponnese. After arrival we set up the tent at the campsite at the beach and ventured into the saltpans. After an hour of hiking I heard a snake slithering through the halophytic plants. Instinctively I grabbed it and caught one of my targets for this trip; an adult Four-lined Snake (Elaphe quatuorlineata). A species which is common but always eluded me somehow. I only ever saw one before this one. After dinner at a nice Italian restaurant in Pylos we went for some nocturnal herping and found 16 adult African Chameleons (Chamaeleo africanus) along with all three gecko species of the area and several Green Toads (Bufotes viridis). The next morning we woke up to a clouded sky and while we were photographing some chameleons a thunderstorm was brewing over sea. Not for long until we had to run back to the car, drive like mad to the campsite, secure our stuff out of the already soaked tent and sit the storm out in a cafe. Afterwards temperatures rose swiftly again and herping was unsuccessful. At the nearby waterfalls of Polylimnio we saw our first Peloponnese Wall Lizards (Podarcis peloponnesiacus), Greek Rock Lizards (Hellenolacerta graeca), Greek Stream Frogs (Rana graeca) and a single Grass Snake (Natrix natrix). But here the holidays vibe also kicked in again and we rather spent the day swimming than chasing heated up lizards.
While making our way up north we stopped at the Kaiafa Lake where we swam between many European Pond Terrapins (Emys orbicularis) and several Balkan Terrapins (Mauremys rivulata).
At Kalogria we went for birdwatching but also enjoyed a lovely afternoon on an empty beach. In the slightly less hot afternoon we observed Snake-eyed Skinks (Ablepharus kitaibellii) and Ionian Wall Lizards (Podarcis ionicus) in the leaf litter while a single Hermann's Tortoise (Testudo hermanni) was foraging. In the evening we looked for amphibians and walked into an Eastern Spadefoot Toad (Pelobates syriacus) which was a surprising find for the hot summer months. Many Marsh Frogs (Pelophylax ridibundus) and Epirus Water Frogs (Pelophylax epeiroticus) were seen as well. At night we camped underneath a wonderful starry sky in the pineforest. The bats were doing their best, but in the end the mosquitos were out in such huge amounts that we didn't stay up for too long.
From Kalogria to Papingo was a long drive indeed, but on another scoarching hot day there is little else to do than stay in the airconditioned car. The newly constructed motorway made sure we made good progress on our journey though and we arrived in the afternoon in the mountains. We visited the Ovires Pools where we easily observed Greek Stream Frogs, Yellow-bellied Toads (Bombina variegata), Fire Salamander (Salamandra salamandra) larvae, Dalmatian Algyroides (Algyroides nigropunctatus) and Wall Lizards (Podarcis muralis). Again swimming was more tempting than photographing shy lizards so we left it at that. After dinner in Papingo we drove up to the same site again to pitch up our tent, have another swim and go for some frogging. At night there was even more activity along the streams and everywhere tiny Stream Frogs were hopping around alongside tiny Fire Salamanders. The Yellow-bellied Toads brought their music, bear tracks in the stream brought tension, a distant light show from Papingo brought a comical note and beer brought relief to the evening.
In the morning we visited some scenic highlights such as the Voidomatis Bridge and the Vikos Gorge. Late in the afternoon we drove to a small mountain village where we met up with Edvárd Mizsei and 8 other researchers from Hungary and 1 from Montenegro. Edvárd asked us to buy bread for the camp, but with the limited supplies in the mountain villages we had to stop in several shops and buy all the bread there was. After raiding the whole town of their bread we hopped with Edvárd in the Landrover and drove up the mountain to around 1900m absl. The camp of the Greek Meadow Viper Working Group was set amidst a desolate landscape and against a dramatic backdrop of steep cliffs. We had a fantastic time here, every morning getting up at Hungarian time to look for vipers. Doing hikes towards a drinking pond for cattle, full of Alpine Newts (Ichthyosaura alpestris veluchiensis) or to the top of the nearest highest peak. And we enjoyed the fabulous cooking of our new Hungarian friends. In the evenings we had the most fabulous starry skies to look at and with the fresh mountain air we slept like babies. Over the course of three days we found a total of 9 Greek Meadow Vipers (Vipera graeca), a dead Smooth Snake (Coronella austriaca) and only very few Wall Lizards. Moreover, we saw some interesting raptors here such as Short-toed Eagle (Circaetus gallicus) and Bonelli's Eagle (Aquila fasciata). One afternoon we had a Balkan Chamois (Rupicabra rupicabra balcanica) standing on a cliff, well visible from the camp.
We were leaving the national park behind with a bit of a melancholic feeling in our stomachs. But even after such a good time we felt like heading to new adventures. We spent the day birding at Ioannina lake and saw several birds such as Pygmy Cormorants (Microcarbo pygmeus), Dalmatian Pelicans (Pelecanus crispus) and Lesser Grey Shrike (Lanius minor). In the evening we headed towards the city centre which is conveniently located at the shores of the lake and saw literally hundreds of Lesser Kestrels (Falco naumanni) soaring overhead as we had dinner. After dinner we collected Thomas from the airport and drove to a mountain village.
The next morning we were up early again and searched the steep slopes for Greek Meadow Vipers. Only Common Wall Lizards, Eastern Green Lizards (Lacerta viridis), Sand Lizards (Lacerta agilis bosnica), Alpine Newts and Yellow-bellied Toads were seen. The hot afternoon we spent at the famous Meteora monasteries and in the evening we would collect Paul from the airport to reinforce the team. Thijs and me still went into the mountains and found an awesome pond pulsating with life, despite the high altitude. Alpine Newts, Macedonian Crested Newts (Triturus macedonicus), Yellow-bellied Toads and Marsh Frogs were out and about in good numbers.
Thijs and me decided to sleep in after a few early mornings and short nights in general. Sadly Paul and Thomas weren't successful in the mountains and after a breakfast we drove to the southern part of the Pindos Mountains where we would arrive in the afternoon. We immediately drove up in the mountains but all we found was Common Wall Lizards. Also the two morning sessions here weren't successful and only Thijs had a sighting of a viper which was carried of by a Short-toed Eagle. Luckily, on our very last afternoon in this area Thomas found a beautiful big female Greek Meadow Viper laying stretched out in the grass. And we had wifi in the hotel to watch Game of Thrones episode 4. Amazing!
On the drive from the mountains to the harbour in Neapoli we had a short stay in Tripoli. On the drive south we stopped at Mystras and Paul could get two new ticks; Peloponnese Wall Lizard and Greek Rock Lizard in a valley full of Jersey Tigers (Euplagia quadripunctaria). Happy days! From Neapoli we took the ferry to Kythira. Already from quite a distance we could see huge columns of smoke rising from the island as some massive bushfires had been raging for days. Upon our arrival the firefighters were about to extinguish the last flames but the damage was well visible over the island. A very sad sight! We checked in into our comely apartment and went straight to the travel agency to arrange the boat to Pori. We had done so months ago, but a Greek friend of ours called to see if our appointment was still standing and apparanty it didn't. So now we had to arrange something in situ. Sadly the travel agency couldn't do anything for us so we went into the harbour and asked everyone with a boat and made some phonecalls. While having dinner we were being called back by someone. He overheard a conversation that a few foreigners wanted to go to Pori but couldn't find a boat. Well, he had a boat so he made us all very happy and we agreed to meet him the next morning at 07:00 in the harbour. What a relief! Herping friend Kevin Byrnes was also staying on the island with his wife Suzanne and we met him in the harbour. We had something to celebrate so after a toast we went of to bed. Although Thijs and I did a small round of looking for Cat Snakes unsuccessfully.
In the morning, we all met in the harbour and after a smooth boat ride of about 40 minutes we could set foot on the uninhabited island of Pori. This tiny island is home to a unique species of lizard that has lived here for millions of years already. My final species I had left to see in Europe, the Pori Wall Lizard (Podarcis levendis). It didn't take long for us to find the lizards but as it was hard to photograph them, euphoria didn't set in immediately. The summer heat soon kicked in as well and the lizards were mostly confined to large bushes which provided some shade. Strangely the fruit we brought wasn't such an attraction for this species as it would have been for lilfordi or raffonei. No prize winning pictures but always an amazing experience to spent some time in such an isolated and ancient island ecosystem. After brunch back on Kythira we spent the afternoon on Kalami beach where we snorkeled and admired the cannons on the bottom of the bay. We had dinner again at the lovely Lemoni restaurant and Thijs and I had few more beers in the evening.
The next day we slept in and had a lazy day at Agios Nikolaos beach. After dinner we had to say goodbye to our British friends. Thomas, Thijs and I took the (two hour delayed) ferry back to the mainland. Here we stayed in Monemvassia, not far away from the Neapoli harbour and Thijs and I finally had wifi to watch Game of Thrones episode 5!
From Monemvassia we had a smooth drive to Athens where we dropped Thomas off at the airport. Thijs and I found a cheap hotel near the city centre where we already packed our bags for the next morning, freshed up a bit and took a taxi to the city centre. We walked around the Acropolis a bit and even saw a Marginated Tortoise (Testudo marginata) grazing in a restricted area of the Acropolis. In the Gazi district we had dinner and some very expensive beers but the waitresses who brought them were very nice, so that was okay!
The next morning we had to get up early but all the airport bullshit went smoothly. And then the trip was already over, 2,5 weeks in Greece certainly flew by. Roadtripping in Greece certainly was the right choice as the roads are in fine shape and almost empty, nature is stunning and untouched in places, food is great, people are relaxed and the weather is almost always sunny. Moreover, even on such a relaxed trip as this, we found the two target species and my Euro list is finished!
Alpine Newt (Ichthyosaura alpestris ssp. veluchiensis)
Macedonian Crested Newt (Triturus macedonicus)
Fire Salamander (Salamandra salamandra)
Yellow-bellied Toad (Bombina variegata ssp. scabra)
Common Toad (Bufo bufo)
Green Toad (Bufotes viridis)
Eastern Spadefoot Toad (Pelobates syriacus ssp. balcanicus)
Marsh Frog (Pelophylax ridibundus ssp. kurtmuelleri)
Epirus Water Frog (Pelophylax epeiroticus)
Balkan Stream Frog (Rana graeca)
European Pond Terrapin (Emys orbicularis)
Balkan Terrapin (Mauremys rivulata)
Hermann's Tortoise (Testudo hermanni)
Marginated Tortoise (Testudo marginata)
African Chameleon (Chamaeleo africanus)
Turkish Gecko (Hemidactylus turcicus)
Kotschy's Gecko (Mediodactylus kotschyi)
Moorish Gecko (Tarentola mauritanica)
Snake-eyed Skink (Ablepharus kitaibellii)
Dalmatian Algyroides (Algyroides nigropunctatus)
Greek Rock Lizard (Hellenolacerta graeca)
Sand Lizard (Lacerta agilis ssp. bosnica)
Balkan Green Lizard (Lacerta trilineata)
Eastern Green Lizard (Lacerta viridis)
Ionian Wall Lizard (Podarcis ionicus)
Pori Wall Lizard (Podarcis levendis)
Common Wall Lizard (Podarcis muralis)
Peloponnese Wall Lizard (Podarcis peloponnesiacus)
Smooth Snake (Coronella austriaca) DOR
Four-lined Snake (Elaphe quatuorlineata)
Grass Snake (Natrix natrix ssp. persa)
Dice Snake (Natrix tessellata)
Greek Meadow Viper (Vipera graeca)
Many thanks to Edvárd Mizsei, Jeroen Speybroeck, Ilias Strachinis and Benny Trapp.