The clue was all the khaki bags and camera bags. In mid-April, nine-tenths of the seats on the first direct flight of the year to the Greek island of Lesbos were occupied by nature lovers. Here in the Aegean, the tourist shoulder season is all about nature.
Many holidaymakers visit Greece’s third-largest island for its beaches, to savor the olives and sip the ouzo, or to embrace a counterculture inspired by local poet Sappho, whose sixth-century odes century BC on same-sex relationships. the word ‘lesbian’. But the sun worshipers, gourmets and bon vivants arrive between June and August, creating an economic shortage on both sides of the winter olive picking season.
Catering to nature lovers instead of naturists fills the gap. “The start of the tourist season is very strong thanks to birdwatchers,” says Stella Tekes, co-owner of the Sea Horse Hotel in Molivos, a fishing village that has become a modest tourist center.
Her feelings apply especially to Skala Kallonis, a coastal town half an hour’s drive south. George and Effy Kapsalis were the first hoteliers here, and have focused Hotel Malemi – and Skala Kallonis in a broader sense – on nature lovers for almost thirty years. The last ten years have been tough for tourism, George explains, “with the Greek economic crisis, then the media perception of the so-called ‘refugee crisis’, and then Covid”. He hopes the new enthusiasm for the wild side of Lesbos will turn things around.
The Kapsalis chose their location astutely. A village statue commemorates Aristotle’s pioneering biological studies in Kallonis: he discovered that dolphins were not fish, as is commonly thought, and described how birds hatched from eggs. The Kapsalises hotel grounds echo with birdsong: purring turtle doves, the symphony of a nightingale and the eerie nocturnal song of a pygmy owl. Within walking distance, our group of nature travelers gazed at ridiculously long-legged flamingos and stilts, multicolored bee-eaters and pterodactyl-like black storks. Dozens of bird species interrupt their migration from Africa around Skala Kallonis, so birdwatchers are attracted here.
As we spread further across this intensely rural island – the size of Greater London, but with 1 per cent of the population – every car or minibus that arrived streamed visitors with binoculars. A seasonal WhatsApp group with hundreds of members was abuzz with the latest sightings of evocatively named birds: olive tree warbler, spurred plover, Eleonora’s falcon. Inspired by Aristotle, Lesbos’ fame for migratory birds rightly outweighs the shame of human migrants.
Even beyond the ephemeral birdlife that scatters stardust in spring and autumn, there is much more to fascinate. Although Lesbos is only one-hundredth the size of Britain, it is home to more species of plants, butterflies, dragonflies, reptiles and amphibians. Moreover, Lesbos is twenty times closer to Turkey than mainland Greece, “with a unique Asian aspect,” explains tour guide Philip Precey, “with animals and plants found virtually nowhere else in Europe.”
We encountered these specialties in pleasantly contrasting landscapes. Under a forest of Turkish pines we saw our first masked shrike. This spotted predator with hooked beak and apricot-colored flanks lives no further west than Macedonia. On the remote hill of Ipsilou, topped by a ninth-century monastery, a singing bunting marked the transition between the bone-crushing prickly scrub and the shady oak forest. The bird’s sun-yellow face glowed above its otherwise ashy robe. Three Aegean islands form the only European enclave.
Nearby, starry agamas—gilded, punk-haired reptiles that look more dragon than lizard—dominated the rocky skylines atop the tallest boulders. They made up for the fact that we didn’t see a spear sand boa: in battles, the ancient Greeks reportedly threw Europe’s only constrictor at invading enemies.
The names of some animals speak of the East. A Persian squirrel, which had avoided clambering up tree trunks to bask in the sun, fell belly-down on a rock, its reddish-brown limbs outstretched. Levant water frogs sang from a water trough on a gently cultivated hillside. Oriental festoon butterflies flirted on lacy wings as males chased females through blue-green olive groves, and females searched for bizarre plants called birthworts – “shaped like birth canals,” Philip explained – on which to lay eggs.
All too often the diversity of wildlife overwhelmed us. “It’s hard to know where to look,” one group member muttered derisively, “when you’ve got a short-toed snake eagle above your head, a starry agama in front, and a sparse swallowtail behind you.” Yet secretly it was the plants that stole the show.
Wherever we wandered – high or low, lush or arid – we came across floral spectacles. The coastal strip of Skala Kallonis is covered in ice blue and candy pink catch flies: this is a place of beach flowers, not beach bums. The traditionally managed olive groves that sprawl across a quarter of the island and produce the liquid gold of Lesvos’ main exports also offer a painter’s palette of ground flora, with brushstrokes of crimson, indigo and sun-blush yellow. Strolling near the hidden village of Lafionas, Philip identified an astonishing twenty species of flowering plants in one square meter, including the golden pompoms of the giant fennel.
On the slopes of Mount Olympus, moist sweet chestnut forests exemplified the historical name Lassia of Lesbos (“the densely wooded one”). We climbed among groups of peacock anemones whose radiated florets were an intense scarlet or deep purple. Although it is still too early for the bizarre Komper orchid, whose tubers are illegally harvested for aphrodisiacs, we counted fourteen other species of orchids. This included the amusingly mentioned naked man orchid, whose priapic shape suggests no need for performance enhancement.
Our week ended too soon. It was a tough task to leave such wealth behind. I longed to stay longer; others did. Our return flight left half empty, the more knowledgeable nature observers stayed behind for a fortnight. Lesbos’ shoulder season was theirs.
Species to look out for on Lesvos
This lemon-headed, finch-like bird is at the top of every visiting birdwatcher’s wish list because it is so difficult to see anywhere else in the world. Except for Lesbos and two fellow Greek islands, it nests exclusively in the mountains of southern Turkey and southern Iran.
With agama in the leading role
This dragon-like lizard is an inveterate sun worshiper and usually climbs to the top of rock walls. Despite its fierce appearance, it is actually quite timid and never strays far from a hiding place. It is the only agama species in Europe; the rest live in Asia or Africa.
Levant water frog
This large amphibian only jumps into Europe in eastern Greece. The species congregates opportunistically in lakes, ponds, streams and even reservoirs and is especially noticeable in the spring when males attempt to court females by croaking and rasping day and night.
This striking spring-flying butterfly graces open woodlands and olive groves from Albania to Iraq. The lemon-like wings are stitched black and spotted bright red. Females lay their eggs on the leaves of the birthwort, which the resulting caterpillars later eat.
This spectacular sixty-foot-tall orchid blooms in May, especially on Mount Olympus, and has hooded pink flowers that end in long, sweeping ribbons. Its natural rarity is compounded by the commercial harvest of the root for use in an aphrodisiac Turkish drink called salep.
James Lowen traveled as a guest of Wildlife Travel (01954 713575; wildlife-travel.co.uk), which is offering two tours in May 2024 from £1,995 per person, including flights, accommodation, food, transport and guiding.