Herping Field Trip Peloponnese (03-17)

March 16 we flew to Athens in the evening, we landed at circa 21:00 local time, rented a car and got to our destination Xylochastros an hour and a half later. We had planned on doing a short full-time herping trip, though due to circumstances very early in the season. With regards to weather, it had apparently rained quite a bit on the days prior to our arrival, with our days there filled with sunshine.

The Peloponnese is revered by herpers across Europe, as it has many endemic species and is relatively untouched. It is marked by heavy mountainous areas; some with permanent snow. The West however is much flatter with an abundance of wetlands, providing some nice variation. I was personally mostly eying the leopard snake and the nose-horned viper.

IMG_4995.jpgIMG_5021.jpgDay 1
After a good night’s rest and a decent breakfast we headed out South, towards the Stimfalia lake. It quickly became apparent that there were no tunnels or lower parts through the mountains, and you actually had to mount them head on, making way through meandering roads (some more bumpy and more off-road than others..) and little towns.

At our first stop we quickly found the first herps of the trip, all of which would be lizards until our arrival at the lake. 5x Balkan Wall Lizard Tauricus ionicus and 1 Snake-Eyed-Skink Ablepharus kitaibelii.

Lake Stimfalia is a very nice lake which produces a great mix of wetlands, marshlands, rocky outcrops and everything in between. It is a natural park in which the reed is actually cut and sold, from which the proceedings flow back into paying the costs for maintaining the park.

Surprisingly however, there was almost no herp activity present – aside from a chorus of Marsh Frogs Pelophylax ridibundus. No terrapins, no dice snake. After turning some 50 rocks I finally stumbled upon a common toad Bufo bufo. In addition, some lizards scattered away here and there (Peleponese Wall Lizard). Presumably the lake’s altitude (600+ M) makes it a bit too cold in early March for real activity.
After that we headed back to the hotel, at which point it had gotten surprisingly chilly.

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Day 2
After a disappointing day 1 we started thinking of heading West to the lowlands, but first we decided to make one more stop near Xylochastros. It was a nice almost duneish hill, directly adjacent to a rough olive garden. After scouring the area for an hour or so we only managed to find 1 Snake-Eyed-Skink, and presumably, a snake (based on the sound of its retreat). We then made good on our plans to go to the West and headed there.

After an almost 2 hour drive we reached the coast and drove past a little rocky outcrop. We immediately noticed a dead snake (Natrix natrix persa) and a live Marginated Tortoise Testudo marginata. On getting there however we crossed paths with a small, but feisty, Eastern Montpellier Snake Malpolon insignitus, who quickly made his escape. Surprisingly the road seemed to be a path to be crossed, as we found some dead dice snake (Natrix tesselata) and a live one crossing the road (Why did the snake cross the road? One might ask…). We further found a small Hermann’s tortoise and 4 Green Toads (Bufo viridis). We also saw some large white pelicans fly over and saw many flamingos in the brackish sea arm.

As it got later we checked for hotels and found a nice place (and saw a large black snake cross the road – presumably a Dice snake), but since our stuff was still in Xylochastros we rode back and spent one last night there.

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Day 3
Strengthened by the increased herp activity on Day 2 compared to Day 1 we went back to the same place as the day before, but surprisingly did not see anything. We then drove a bit further towards the coast and entered a not so pristine river bank, which yielded a large Grass snake, a Caspian Pond Terrapin and some 10 Dice snakes. On our way to the hotel we saw a large European Pond terrapin cross the road (with beautiful coloring), and even found a tiny one that could easily fit in the palm of your hand.

At night we heard an impressive eagle owl. Interestingly, at the hotel we had various guests from Serbia. Who were apparently doing some (shady) strawberry trading through their country to bypass embargoes from the EU with a certain very large country in the East of Europe ;-).

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Day 4
This day would be our last full day, as we would be headed back home in the evening the day after. After scouring the spot from the previous day, only finding 3 Hermann’s tortoises and one large unidentified brown snake we figured we had to change strategy. Since we had not had the success we had hoped for, rather than trying to find ‘pristine’ nature we headed into the agricultural areas, looking for rough edges and corridors.

On our first stop we had almost instant success. As we were walking across thorny blackberry bushes I noticed a very large snake slowly trying to flee (Four-lined snake). I grabbed it by its tail, and a tug-o-war ensued. However, me not wanting to hurt or damage the snake, I was slowly but surely getting myself pulled into the thorny bushes. As it became clear the snake would not yield and I was worried I might hurt it I finally let it go, after which it slowly made its way out. Snake 1 me 0.

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At our next stop I noticed another snake and managed to grab it. It turned out to be a large Sheltopusik, fiercely showing off its hemipenes and excreting its dark and nasty excrement’s (on my gloves, luckily). As we continued our way down the road we saw some additional hermann’s tortoises, but were finally approached by an angry farmer. Everything the farmer said sounded Greek to me, thus we were unable to communicate. However, by the wild waving of his hand and the constant use of the word “problema” we figured he wanted us to leave. As we were leaving by car we got blocked by yet another farmer in a large pick-up truck, he had 5 (I kid you not) small children in the seat next to him, and then he started his tirade. As we were unable to respond in Greek there was no way to communicate, finally the little girl said “photograph”, at which point the farmer drove on angrily. Maybe they were worried about us taking pictures?
Next stop was at some dumping ground, with lots of rubble and plastic next to an olive garden. We saw greek rock lizards, and – finally – under a fiat wheel trim (no less) a leopard snake! This beautiful snake was very agile and nimble and was definitely the highlight of this trip.IMG_5197IMG_5181.jpg

Back at the hotel we met some nice Canadian birders whom with we would spend the evening, running into some green toads and dice snake.

Day 5

On our final day we explored the dune habitats near the hotel. This produced many tortoises, both Hermann’s and Marginated, also our first and only Balkan Green lizards. On our drive back to Athens we made a final stop. It seemed like a great spot, but we only found 1 tortoise and a green toad.

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In conclusion:
I was surprised by the complete lack of European worm snake and the relative lack of Eastern Montpellier snakes and Balkan whip snakes. On the other hand, we managed to get a very reasonable score of 21 herp species with some clear highlights. I think early March is a bit too early, especially higher above sea level. However, it was clear that most species were already out there and it should be warm enough in the sun for all species to come out, especially if you know where to look for them.

The final tally:
1. Leopard Snake Zamenis situla (1)
2. Four-lined Snake Elaphe quatuorlineata (1) + 1 dead juvenile
3. Grass snake Natrix natrix spp persa (1)
4. Eastern Montpellier Snake Malpolon insignitus (1)
5. Dice snake Natrix tessellata (20+)
6. Scheltopusik Pseudopus apodus (1)
7. Peleponese Slow Worm Anguiss cephallonica (1)
8. Snake-Eyed Skink Ablepharus kitaibelii (5)
9. Balkan green lizard Lacerta trilineata (2)
10. Eastern green lizard Lacerta viridis (3+)
11. Balkan wall lizard Podarcis tauricus (2)
12. Greek rock lizard Hellenolacerta graeca (5+)
13. Common toad Bufo bufo (1)
14. Green toad Bufotes viridis (10+)
15. Common tree frog Hyla arborea (1)
16. Agile frog Rana dalmatina (1)
17. Marsh frog Pelophylax ridibundus (101)
18. Hermann’s Tortoise Testudo hermanni (10+)
19. Marginated tortoise Testudo marginata (20+)
20. European pond terrapin Emys orbicularis (3)
21. Balkan pond terrapin Mauremys rivulata (5+)

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