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Wildlife in the South Dodecanese: a hoopoe

Wildlife in the South Dodecanese

  • August 26, 2019
  • Tilos
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With its stunning history, ancient monuments, picturesque islands, breathtaking coastline and superb cuisine, Greece is an ideal holiday destination. However, few visitors realise that the country also boasts a rich biodiversity with abundant wildlife.

Hugging the coastline of Turkey in the southeastern corner of the Aegean, the Dodecanese Islands sit at a crossroads between Europe, Africa and Asia. Their geographical location has impacted on the flora and fauna found here.

Here’s an overview of the wildlife found in the South Dodecanese, with particular emphasis on our islands, Halki, Tilos and Nisyros.

Mammals

Unlike the forests of Northern Greece, which are home to large animals such as bears and wolves, the Dodecanese offers a more modest selection of mammals.

An abundant rabbit population provides food for raptors, along with shrews, rats and mice. Two hedgehog species can be found here: the typical northern hedgehog along with the white-bellied hedgehog of southwestern Asia. Stand outside at dusk and you’ll be treated to the sight of myriad bat species hunting for food.

The beguiling beech marten lives on Rhodes and Karpathos, while the larger island of Rhodes is also home to bigger species such as fallow deer and badgers. It’s worth noting that the goat population on Tilos has become overwhelmed, with many now acknowledged as wild animals.

However, one of the most important and rare mammals in Greece can be found offshore. With only around 600-700 individuals left in the wild – around 300-400 in Greece – the Mediterranean monk seal is an endangered species that lives on rocky, inaccessible islands and coastal areas in the Aegean, although it can be difficult to see. You’re more likely to spot dolphins frolicking offshore, with common dolphins, bottlenose dolphins and striped dolphins seen here and, if you’re lucky, you could even see a passing sperm whale.

Wildlife in the Dodecanese: dolphins
Dolphins. Photo by Tom Swinnen from Pexels

Tilos also has a fascinating secret. Excavations in the Harkadio Cave revealed the fossilised bones of dwarf elephants that lived on Tilos until around 4000BC, making them the last elephants to ever live in Europe.

Birds

Around 422 bird species have been recorded in Greece, with 263 of those found in the Dodecanese. Thanks to a hunting ban passionately enforced by locals, Tilos is a delight for birdwatchers with 162 resident and migratory species seen here.

With mountainous landscapes and craggy coastlines, raptors abound in the Dodecanese, with long-legged buzzards, short-toed snake eagles, lesser kestrels, peregrine falcons, and even golden eagles on the larger islands, while black kites and ospreys can be seen on migration. But Tilos offers the opportunity to witness two rare species: at least two pairs of Bonelli’s eagles nest on the island, while Eleonora’s falcons breed here in huge numbers.

Notable species seen around the coastline include Mediterranean shag and Andouin’s gull, one of the world’s rarest gulls, along with several other gull and tern species, while large ravens nest on craggy cliffs. Wading birds include squacco and night heron, glossy ibis, black-winged stilt and Temminck’s stint.

European bee-eaters
European bee-eaters. Image by Marc Pascual from Pixabay

Inland, colourful European rollers, bee-eaters, golden oriole and exotic-looking hoopoes can be seen, while blue-cheeked bee-eaters are occasional vagrants.  Blue rock thrush are often seen and heard along the rocky coast, while notable passerines include Cretzschmar’s Bunting and olive-tree warbler. Swifts and swallows circle above, while at night listen for the haunting cry of the Eurasian scops owl (though good luck trying to see one!).

Reptiles

The hot climate and proximity to Asia Minor has resulted in a large diversity of reptiles on the islands, many of which aren’t found in mainland Greece. There are several species of snake in the Dodecanese, though few are dangerous to humans and all are more scared of us and likely to slither away unseen.

On the smaller islands, you may see Ottoman adders and coin snakes, though more common are beautiful, long, black snakes, known by locals as ratcatchers due to their choice of food. However, it’s almost impossible not to see lizards, from copper and ocellated skinks, to rock lizards, snake-eyed lizards, and – my personal favourites – cute Mediterranean house geckos, which make a delightful chirping sound at night.

Frank Vassen from Brussels, Belgium [CC BY 2.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)]

The Dodecanese is also home to sea reptiles. If you’re lucky, you might see loggerhead turtles, Mediterranean sea turtles and even leatherback turtles.

Fish and Marine Fauna

Aegean waters are abundant with marine life, much of which finds its way onto local menus, such as sea urchins, octopus, squid, prawns, cuttlefish, crabs and an array of fish, from whitebait and anchovies to mullet, sea bream, sardines, mackerel and tuna.

More notable species found offshore include the rare moonfish and the second-largest shark species – basking sharks – that can be seen off the coast of Rhodes. Completely harmless to humans, these giant fish gobble up tiny plankton prey.

Insects

There are thousands of insect species recorded in the Dodecanese, ranging from the beautiful to the downright bizarre. Dragonflies, butterflies and moths abound, with standout species including swallowtail butterflies, hummingbird hawk-moths, and scarlet dragonflies. A trip to the Valley of the Butterflies on Rhodes is a must for nature-lovers, as it’s filled with thousands of Jersey tiger moths.

Hummingbird hawk-moth
Hummingbird hawk-moth. Image by Heiko Stein from Pixabay

Colourful bugs include rose chafers and firebugs, while the sound of the cicada is unmistakable, though they’re less easy to spot. As for the downright bizarre, alien-like praying mantis are a common sight and fascinating to watch.

European praying mantis
European praying mantis. Image by ju-dit from Pixabay

Arachnids

Finally, my least favourite section, but perhaps you’re curious about the possibility of seeing spiders, scorpions and other nasties in the Dodecanese.

There are spiders on the islands, though they’re unlikely to bite unless they feel threatened and most are harmless to humans. Many of the biggest spiders live in burrows outside, with the exception of the infamous Symi spider, a large, hairy spider that lives in Symi houses. Fortunately, their bite isn’t poisonous to humans, though they are pretty terrifying to behold.

Scorpions are less common to see, though they can give a painful bite. They rarely venture inside, preferring to nestle in bark, and cracks and crevices in rocks and stones. So no sticking your fingers into dark places!

On the subject of nasties, while not technically an arachnid, centipedes do venture inside and they can give a nasty nip. While not fatal, if you see one it’s best to watch from a distance!

Enjoy Wildlife in Halki, Tilos and Nisyros

As a protected area with a hunting ban, abundant natural water sources and a leader in green energy, Tilos is especially cherished by nature lovers. However Nisyros offers its own unique natural charm, as its spectacular volcanic landscape and fertile soil encourages varied vegetation, which in turns supports a variety of fauna. Meanwhile the barren, arid landscape of Halki supports a healthy raptor population and its rocky beaches offer fantastic snorkelling opportunities.

If you’re keen to witness the wildlife of the South Dodecanese, contact Nissia Holidays on 01455 289421 or email us at info@nissiaholidays.com and ask about our fantastic accommodation on the unspoilt islands of Halki, Tilos and Nisyros. Bear in mind that spring and autumn are the best seasons to visit if you want to enjoy Greek nature at its finest.

Jo

Jo worked on Tilos in 2006, as the last Island Manager for Laskarina. She now runs a travel writing business and travel blog, The Wandering Wordsmith, and spends much of her year travelling. But Greece, especially Tilos, will always hold a special place in her heart.

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