Photographing Cyprus Warbler (Sylvia melanothorax) and Cyprus trip report 03|2014

After a spring trip to the western Mediterranean, namely Mallorca, in 2013, I visited Cyprus early this spring to see and photograph eastern Mediterranean species. Since I’m partial to Sylvia warblers, my main target was the endemic Cyprus Warbler, (Sylvia melanothorax). Studying various species accounts and reports prior to my trip, I wasn’t sure what to expect, as some listed the species as uncommon while others found it abundant. The consensus, however, was that the population has been declining for the past years. Before I continue, let me say that I luckily found Cyprus Warbler to be very common and easy to spot throughout many parts of the island. 

For the first leg of the trip I stayed in the south-eastern part of the island near Cape Greco. Strolling around the Cape on the first morning produced many kestrels, several Cretzschmar’s Bunting, Spectacled Warbler, Cyprus-, Isabeline-, and Northern Wheatear, Crested Lark, Lesser Whitethroat, and a singing Nightingale, among many other species that are common in Switzerland and were thus of less interest to me such as Goldfinch, Greenfinch, Hooded Crow, Barn Swallow, House Martin, etc. Three migrating Rüppell’s Warbler were feeding on berries and not the least bit concerned with my presence. I also spotted and/or heard eight Chukar. The picnic area in the north-east corner held the first two Cyprus Warblers I saw on this trip. The vegetation in this area is shrubby with scattered taller trees from which the warblers sang.  

Another trip to Cape Greco on the second day produced more of the same birds as the previous day. Spectacled and Blackcap Warbler were common, the former already feeding young and very skittish and thus difficult to approach. Crested Larks were abundant, a group of Alpine Swift raced by the sea caves, and flocks of Linnet flushed from the trail. South of the picnic area I was surprised to spot a Long-legged Buzzard being harassed by a Hooded Crow, both were heading towards the broadcast antennas at the very tip of the cape. Back at the picnic area I spotted a Masked Shrike, Hoopoe, and again several Cyprus Warblers.

cy-14-6d-0098
Cape Greco - Spectacled Warbler is common among the low shrubs close to shore, Chukar inhabit the rocky areas further up hill.

My impression of Cyprus after the first few days was mixed…the weather was fantastic, there were loads of birds, interesting species and wonderful habitat, but most birds I found were timid, easily flushed and difficult to approach. Of course, the continued illegal, large-scale songbird trapping is likely responsible for the nervous disposition of the local birds towards people. Luckily, I didn’t witness any trapping myself. Another downside to Cyprus, or at least this area, is the strong military presence. Several people warned us to stay away from certain areas or to not photograph within sight of military compounds. While this is an easily avoided nuisance, I found it discomforting to know that my gear could be confiscated or I could otherwise get in “trouble” simply by pointing my lens in the wrong direction. 

Cy 14 9762Spectacled Warbler (Sylvia conspicillata) favors low shrubs, often less than 50cm in height.

 

Spectacled Warbler habitat on Cyprus Warbler habitatCy 14 6d 0147 Cy 14 6d 0156

Typical Spectacled Warbler habitat in Cyprus. This habitat also supports Crested Lark, Stonechat, Tawny Pipit and other migrating Sylvia species.

 

Cy 14 9777Chukar are commonly heard and sometimes seen among the rocks at Cape Greco.

 

Ruppell's Warbler Ruppell's Warbler
Ruppells Warbler Sardinian Warbler
Migrant Rüppell's Warbler (Sylvia rueppelli) feeding on berries at Cape Greco. Sardinian Warbler is a scarce breeder in the area.

 

Cape Greco cyprus warbler
Taller garrigue habitat further inland from the coast is home to Cyprus Warbler (Sylvia melanothorax).

For the second part of the trip I was stationed in the Diarizos valley in western Cyprus, which thankfully hosts fewer military institutions. While Cape Greco is rather dry and barren with very low shrubs, Diarizos valley has relatively more vegetation with olive trees, pastures and extensive shrubby hillsides. Arriving at the small hotel, I was greeted by Barn Swallows nesting in the reception area. Black Francolin were calling, Jackdaws, Kestrels, Corn Bunting, Zisticola, and Cetti’s Warbler were common. Sardinian Warbler was also heard at the hotel, I had only seen one or two during the first days at and around Cape Greco.

A short drive up the valley produced the first Griffon Vulture, perched on a giant rock formation. Magpies were quite abundant. After parking the car at a roadside stop and strolling around the area for a few minutes I found a large flock of Jackdaws riding the updrafts on a hillside when suddenly an adult pair of Bonelli’s Eagle appeared and circled right above my head. Me rushing back to the car to grab the camera, resulted in the eagles gaining enough height to only allow distant low-quality shots. Still I was thrilled to have had this unexpected encounter! Later, while scanning a group of swallows hawking overhead, I spotted four Red-rumped Swallows among the many Barn Swallows and House Martins. On the way back to the hotel, an unfortunate crushed roadside Barn Owl was the first Strigiform member I encountered in Cyprus. As it turned out, however, a pair of Scops Owl nested right by the hotel. The pair called frequently each night and were even heard copulating. 

Bonellis EagleOne of a pair of Bonelli's Eagle (Aquila fasciata) soaring at Diarizos valley.

A quick visit to Asprokremmos Dam the next day resulted in many more Sardinian and Cyprus Warblers as well as Montagu’s Harrier, Chukar, Black Francolin, Common Buzzard, and Little Owl. On a subsequent outing to Aspro Dam I had a Peregrine Falcon flying past with a killed pigeon. 

The coastal garrigue scrub in south-western Cyprus generally held many Cyprus and Sardinian Warbler in roughly equal numbers it seemed. Both were conspicuous and easy to locate, albeit difficult to approach for good photos. Surprisingly, I found Spectacled Warbler scarce in the west compared to the Cape Greco area.

The north-west coast around the Baths of Aphrodite held Spanish Sparrow, Red-rumped Swallow, Hoopoe, Cyprus Wheatear and migrating swifts and sparrowhawks. Sardinian Warbler was abundant in this area and greatly outnumbered Cyprus Warbler of which I only spotted a few. Just outside Polis more Red-rumped Swallows were hawking overhead and Black Francolin were calling from the pastures. A short stop at Evretou Dam produced many Sardinian Warbler, Nightingale, Great Egret, Spanish Sparrow, but no Cyprus Warbler. Of all the places I visited, Sardinian Warbler only outnumbered its endemic cousin at the Baths of Aphrodite area and around Evretou dam. Back at the hotel I finally saw my first Great Spotted Cuckoo. A group of 30 Grey Herons migrated north and a roadkill Levantine Viper (Macrovipera lebetina) was, unfortunately, the only snake seen on this trip. 

Red Rumped Swallow Rötelschwalbe Cyprus Zypern Cecropis DauricaRed-rumped Swallow (Cecropis daurica) on left and Barn Swallow (Hirundo rustica) preening on right near the Baths of Aphrodite.

 

habitat Cy 14 6d 0167
Habitat of Cyprus Wheatear, Sardinian Warbler and the odd Cyprus Warbler on Akamas penninsula near the Baths of Aphrodite.

Driving into the Troodos Mountains resulted in many roadside Cyprus Wheatears, some of which were suprisingly approachable and thus easily photographed. The hillside scrub also held many Cyprus Warbler. A Long-legged Buzzard was hovering by the roadside near Mandria.

On the last day I made a quick trip to Kensington Cliffs and Petra tou Romiou. The extensive coastal scrub in the area held Sardinian and Cyprus Warbler, Kestrel, and Hoopoe. At the cliffs a group of Alpine Swift raced by, Jackdaws were abundant, but no sign of Griffon Vultures. On the way back a Black Francolin ran across the road right in front of my car and several migrating Marsh Harriers drew my eyes from the road.

cyprus wheatear cyprus wheatear
Cyprus Wheatear (Oenanthe cypriaca)

 

As I said before, Cyprus is a wonderful place to visit in the spring with perfect weather, few tourists, and tons of interesting birds! Photography might be a bit more challenging there due to the timid nature of the birds and the military presence, but I certainly plan to return to Cyprus for a future photo trip.

 

* This article is not a comprehensive report of all places visited or all species seen on this trip, but just a brief summary of my noteworthy sightings and experiences.

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