The Birds of Naxos

For this article, I used detailed information I obtained from the Greek ornithologist Nikos Promponas (THE Naxos bird expert). Original data for this report arose from a breeding bird study of Naxos my father, Winfried Scharlau, and I conducted in 1990. In the last few years, I have added to the original data through my own personal observations. I thank Nikos Promponas for sharing his expertise on the birds of Naxos, and Peter Jones for the translation. Th. Gaitanakis, G. Beriatos and my father are gratefully acknowledged for the use of their excellent photos.

Typical for islands, the number of breeding bird species on Naxos is lower than on the adjacent mainland. Regardless of this fact, Naxos Island’s avifauna is astonishingly rich and includes a greater diversity of species than most of  the neighbouring islands. This is due mainly to the large size of Naxos and its diversity of landscapes. In addition to the breeding bird species, the migrating birds found on Naxos are of special interest due to the fact Naxos is an important stepping stone between Africa and Europe.

A visitor to Naxos (left), bird watching with Naxos’ most prominent ornithologist, Nikos Promponas (right).

A diversity of bird species breed in the Mediterranean habitats that are not found in Western Europe.

The best site to observe migrating waterfowl is at the lagoon near the airport.

Two-hundred and twenty five species of birds have been observed on Naxos (this is excluding some very old records). This is about half of the 437 species occurring in Greece. Naxos and a few neighbouring islands have 70 nesting species, 4 of these are irregular nesters. Permanent resident species that nest on Naxos number 43, while 27 nesting species are migrants. Close to 90 species are regular migrants in spring or fall and 40 species are winter visitors. 51 species of birds found on Naxos are listed in the Greek Red List of endangered species.

The species of birds found on Naxos are changing, with species such as the Blue Tit and the House Martin no longer found on Naxos in the last 100 years. At the same time, several new species not recorded before, such as the Collared Dove, Cetti’s Warbler, Stonechat, Tree Sparrow and Red-rumped Swallow, have been established on the island. Six of the 70 nesting species that were listed above can be regularly seen on Naxos but do not nest on the island itself but on small neighboring islets. These species are the gulls and shearwaters, Eleanora’s Falcon and the Griffon Vulture (which breeds on nearby Heraklia).

Only in the last few decades have Red-rumped Swallows been established as a nesting species on Naxos, photo by Winfried Scharlau.

The highlights of the Naxian avifauna are doubtlessly the raptors and the waterfowl. Raptors that nest on Naxos or nearby include not only the Common Buzzard and the Kestrel, but the rarer Eleanora’s Falcon, Griffon Vulture, Bonelli’s Eagle, Long-legged Buzzard, Peregrine Falcon and Lanner Falcon.

On Naxos, Eleonora’s Falcon occurs in both the light and dark phase, pictured here is the rarer dark phase, photo by Th. Gaitanakis.

Waterfowl that occurs in the Mediterranean Sea are fewer in species and individuals when compared to areas such as the North Sea, but they are of special interest. Most of the waterfowl that occur in the Mediterranean are not seen in many other areas, such as the very common Yellow-legged Gull (the Mediterranean form of the European Herring Gull), the extremely rare Audouin’s Gull (which occurs only in the Mediterranean) and Cory’s and Yelkouan Shearwaters. Naxian nesting waterfowl include Shags, Black-winged Stilts, Stone Curlew and Kentish and Little Ringed Plovers.

Recently, the very common Yellow-legged Gull was split from the European Herring Gull, Photo by Winfried Scharlau.

The Little Ringed Plover nests on Naxos along the sandy shores of lagoons, photo by Th. Gaitanakis.

A few pairs of Stone Curlew nest at the airport lagoon, photo by G. Beriatus.

Obviously, the most interesting nesting species on Naxos for Western European birders are either Mediterranean or Eastern European species. These are for example the Sardinian, Ruppel’s, Orphean, Olivaceous, and Cetti’s Warblers, the Cirl, Black-headed and Cretzschmar’s Buntings, the Black-eared Wheatear, the Blue Rock Thrush, the Woodchat Shrike, the Red-rumped Swallow and the Alpine Swift.

The Cirl Bunting is one of the most common species on Naxos. Photo by Th. Gaitanakis

Cretzschmar’s Bunting is a typical inhabitant of low shrub vegetation. Photo by Th. Gaitanakis

Moreover, several species can be found on Naxos that also occur in Western Europe, but are not very common. These include: Crested Larks, Woodlarks, Northern Wheatears, Corn Buntings, Stonechats, Ravens and Nightjars.

The stonechat occurs regularly on Naxos. Photo by Winfried Scharlau

Finally Naxos nest several bird species that are common in Western Europe but quite rare in the Aegean, making their presence here somewhat surprising. Among these species are Blackbirds, Chaffinches, Wrens, and Nightingales. Much less common, but still observed from time to time are Spotted Flycatchers, Tree Sparrows (which nest in only one small locality), and the European and Great Reed Warblers. Until they were recently discovered on Naxos, these species were not known to breed on the Cyclades.

List of Nesting Birds on Naxos Island

(Note: r = year around resident; m = migrant)

  • Little Grebe (Tachybaptus ruficollis): res, a few pairs nest in the lagoon at the airport and in Engarés
  • Yelkouan Shearwater (Puffinus yelkouan): mig, nests on nearby rocky islets, often observed flying offshore
  • Cory’s Shearwater (Calonectris diomedea): mig, nests on nearby rocky islets, often observed flying offshore
  • Shag (Phalacrocorax aristotelis): res, nests on cliffs, regularly sighted along the coast
  • Griffon Vulture (Gyps fulvus): res. A small population still nests on Heraklia Island south of Naxos. This is the only nesting population in the Aegean Sea outside of Crete. Previously, hundreds of vultures lived on Naxos, and even 10 years ago they still nested on Naxos itself. These resident Griffon Vultures move daily from Heraklia to Naxos in search of food. There are about 20 to 30 individuals left in this highly endangered population.

Griffon Vulture, photo by Winfried Scharlau

  • Bonelli’s Eagle (Hieraaetus fasciatus): res, a few pairs nest on Naxos, most sightings are in the mountains
  • Common Buzzard (Buteo buteo): res, common in all parts of the island, population is growing
  • Long-legged Buzzard (Buteo rufinus): res, rare, approximately 5-8 breeding pairs. It is likely that the Long-legged Buzzard originally was the only buzzard breeding on Naxos, which is now slowly being displaced by the Common Buzzard.

Long-legged Buzzard, photo by Th. Gaitanakis

  • Eleonora’s Falcon (Falco eleonorae): mige, can often be seen on Naxos from May till October. It does not breed on Naxos itself, but on small neighbouring rocky islets. The population is decreasing.
  • Kestrel (Falco tunninculus): res, common in all parts of the island
  • Peregrine Falcon (Falco peregrinus): res, 2 to 4 pairs nest on Naxos, most easily seen at the lagoon
  • Lanner Falcon (Falco biarmicus): res, one pair nests sporadically on a cliff in the mountains
  • Sparrowhawk (Accipiter nisus): (rese), abundant winter resident, has nested in the Holm Oak forest on Mount Zeus

Sparrowhawks nest irregularly at the Holm Oak forest on Mount Zeus.

  • Chukar (Alectoris chukar): res, nest in garrigue and macchia, but not very abundant
  • Moorhen (Gallinula chloropus): res, very rare, in the lagoons
  • Coot (Fulica atra): res, very rare, a few pairs breed in the lagoon at the airport and in Engarés
  • Water Rail (Rallus aquaticus): res, very rare, breeds in the lagoon at the airport and in Engarés
  • Black-winged Stilt (Himantopus himantopus): mig, very rare nester around the lagoons with adequate water levels

Black-winged Stilt. Photo by Th. Gaitanakis.

  • Stone Curlew (Burhinus oedicnemus): mig, very rare nester around the airport lagoon
  • Kentish Plover (Charadrius alexandrinus): mig, very rare nester around the lagoons when water levels are adequate
  • Little Ringed Plover (Charadrius dubius): mig, rare, nests regularly at the lagoons and on the sandy beaches on the southwest coast

Little Ringed Plovers nest on the beach at Kalandós.

  • Yellow-legged Gull (Larus michahellis): rese. This species was recently spilt from the European Herring Gull. It does not breed on Naxos but is very common along the coast and much of the island.
  • Audouin’s Gull (Larus auduonii): rees, very rare, but can occasionally be observed along the coast; nests on outlying rocky islets, such as Antikeros

Audouin’s Gull, photo by Th. Gaitanakis

  • Rock Dove (Columba livia): res, regularily nests on coastal cliffs
  • Collared Dove (Streptopelia decaocto): res. Twenty years ago the Collared Dove was unknown on Naxos. It arrived about 10 years ago and has now colonized the entire island and nests everywhere, but mainly in villages and agricultural areas.
  • Turtle Dove (Streptopelia turtur): mig, rare nester in macchia and woodland
  • Little Owl (Athene noctua): res, regular nester in olive groves and in cultivated areas with many trees

Little Owl, photo by Th. Gaitanakis

  • Scops Owl (Otus scops): res, common, especially in olive groves and around the villages
  • Barn Owl (Tyto alba): res, rare, about 10 pairs nest in old buildings, churches, etc…

From time to time, Barn Owls breed at the Fotodotis Monastery.

  • Long-eared Owl (Asio otus): res, very rare nester, in open landscape with big and scattered trees
  • Nightjar (Caprimulgus europaeus): mig, infrequent, nests in open landscapes and macchia mainly in the southern and the eastern parts of Naxos

Nightjar breeding habitat.

  • Swift (Apus apus): mig, nests on cliffs along the coast and in the mountains
  • Alpine Swift (Apus melba): mig, nests on cliffs along the coast and in the mountains (e.g. at Mount Zeus)
  • Pallid Swift (Apus pallidus): mig, an irregular nester with only one confirmed nesting record
  • Bee-eater (Merops apiaster): mig, regular and conspicuous during migration; in 2010 a first nesting record was made of one pair near Agiassós
  • Crested Lark (Galerida christata): r, very common in open, cultivated country
  • Woodlark (Lullula arborea): res, rather rare, only on Mount Kóronos

The heather on Mount Kóronos is good breeding habitat for the Woodlark.

  • Pied Wagtail (Motacilla alba): res, regular nester, mainly on the coast and in the cultivated coastal plains
  • Barn Swallow (Hirundo rustica): mig, rare nester in cultivated areas around villages and farms
  • Crag Martin (Ptyonoprogne rupestris): mig, nests in small numbers on a few cliffs in the mountains
  • Red-rumped Swallow (Hirundo daurica): mig, rare nesting species, that builds its nests under bridges in the northern and eastern areas of the island. Population seems to be increasing.

The Red-rumped Swallow only builds its nests on the underside of bridges.

  • Wren (Troglodytes troglodytes): res, a regular but not very abundant nester in the high mountains and in densely wooded areas
  • Blackbird (Turdus merula): res, an abundant nesting species in densely wooded areas
  • Nightingale (Luscinia megarhynchos): res, a regular but not very abundant nester in densely wooded areas
  • Cetti’s Warbler (Cettia cetti): res, a regular nester in densely wooded valleys and along rivers with abundant vegetation

Cetti’s Warbler, Blackbird, Chaffinch and Nightingale breed along the the floodplain of the Apollonas River. Wrens breed along the river higher in the mountains

  • Blue Rock Thrush (Monticola solitarius): res, regularily on rocky slopes, sometimes also in the villages
  • Stonechat (Saxicola torquata): res, regularily in open country, in cultivated areas and shrubland
  • Black-eared Wheatear (Oenanthe hispanica): mig, abundant in open country, in cultivated areas as well as on barren hills

Black-eared Wheatear, photo by G. Beriatus

  • Northern Wheatear (Oenanthe oenanthe): mig, rare nester, restricted to the very highest mountain tops
  • Sardinian Warbler (Sylvia melanocephala): res, the most common nesting bird species on Naxos, occurs all over the island
  • Rüppel’s Warbler (Sylvia cantillans): mig, regular nester, mainly in macchia groves and in areas with tall shrubs
  • Orphean Warbler (Sylvia hortensis): mig, regular nester, mainly in macchia, groves and in cultivated areas with trees
  • Olivaceous Warbler (Hippolais pallida): mig, regular nester, in small numbers in open woodland or olive groves
  • European Reed Warbler (Acrocephalus scirpaceus): mig, rare nester at lagoons and estuaries with abundant reed
  • Great Reed Warbler (Acrocephalus arundinaceus): mig, rare nester at lagoons and estuaries with abundant reed

Reed Warblers only breed in ares with abundant reed growth, such as at Kalandos.

  • Spotted Flycatcher (Muscicapa striata): mig, very rare, in wooded valleys and in the Tragaía
  • Woodchat Shrike (Lanius senator): mig, regular nester in the lower areas

Woodchat Shrike, photo by Th. Gaitanakis

  • House Sparrow (Passer domesticus): res, very common especially around the villages and in cultivated areas
  • Tree Sparrow (Passer montanus): res, very rare. A few pairs breed in a small colony at the Panagía Ypsilotéra monastery near Galíni north of the Chóra. Similar Tree Sparrow colonies exist on Paros and on Crete.
  • Hooded Crow (Corvus corone): res, abundant all over the island
  • Raven (Corvus corax): res, regular nester, but in much smaller numbers than Hooded Crows, mainly in the mountains
  • Great Tit (Parus major): res, very common in areas with trees
  • Goldfinch (Carduelis carduelis): res, very common, all over the island
  • Linnet (Carduelis cannabina): res, very common all over the island
  • Greenfinch (Carduelis chloris): res, common, but in smaller numbers than Goldfinch and Linnet, mainly in cultivated areas with trees
  • Chaffinch (Fringilla coelebs): res, common mainly in mountainous wooded areas
  • Cirl Bunting (Emberiza cirlus): res, very common especially in cultivated and wooded areas
  • Corn Bunting (Miliaria calandra): res, abundant in open cultivated country and dry plains near the coast

Fields near Pánormos where Corn Bunting, Crested Lark, Black-eared Wheatear and Woodchat Shrike nest.

  • Black-headed Bunting (Emberiza melanocephala): mig, regular nester in areas with olive groves or orchards

Black-headed Bunting, photo by G. Beriatos

  • Cretzschmar’s Bunting (Emberiza caesia): mig, regular nester on barren mountain slopes

Winter Visitors

In the winter, the avifauna of Naxos changes radically. The migratory species leave the island and the winter visitors appear. The most common and conspicuous winter visitor is the Robin (Erithacus rubecula), which shows territorial behavior and sings throughout its stay. Other very common winter visitors are the Black Redstarts (Phoenicurus ochruros), Song Thrushes (Turdus philomela), Starlings (Sturnus vulgaris), Skylarks (Alauda arvensis), Meadow Pipits (Anthus pratensis) and Chiffchaffs (Phylloscopus collybita). Also found, but in smaller numbers, are Blackcaps (Sylvia atricapilla), Siskins (Spinus spinus), Serins (Serinus serinus), Spanish Sparrows (Passer hispaniolensis), Fieldfares (Turdus viscivorus), Grey Wagtails (Motacilla cinerea), Dunnocks (Prunella modularis), Firecrests and Goldcrests (Regulus regulus and R. ignicapillus), Hawfinches (Coccothraustes coccothraustes) and Reed Buntings (Emberizia schoeniclus).

During their winter stay on Naxos, Black Redstarts defend their territories by singing. Photo by Winfried Scharlau

Among the raptors, Sparrowhawks (Accipiter nisus) regularly spend the winter in Naxos (they also nest in some years). Hen Harriers (Circus cyaneus) also visit in the winter in small numbers.

Many species of waterfowl visit Naxos during the winter: Black-necked Grebe (Podiceps nigricollis), Great Crested Grebe (P. cristatus), Cormorant (Phalacrocorax carbo), Grey Heron (Ardea cinerea), Little Egret (Egretta garzetta), Flamingo (Phoenicopterus ruber), Mute Swan (Cygnus olor), Shelduck (Tadorna tadorna), Wigeon (Anas penelope), Teal (A. crecca), Shoveler (A. clypeata), Pintail (A. acuta) and Pochard (Aythya ferina), Woodcock (Scolopax rusticola), Common Snipe (Gallinago gallinago), Dunlin (Calidris alpina), Lapwing (Vanellus vanellus), Golden and Grey Plover (Pluvialis apicaria and P. squatarola), Black-headed Gull (Larus ridibundus), Little Gull (L. minutus) and Sandwich Tern (Sterna sandvicensis). Kingfishers (Alcedo atthis) are another regular winter visitor along the coast.

Little Egrets in Kalandós, photo by Winfried Scharlau


Situated in the middle of the Aegean Sea, Naxos is an important stop over point for birds during their spring and fall migrations. As the largest island in the Cyclades, Naxos provides a safe haven for many migrating species where they can seek cover to rest and feed. Of critical importance for migrating waterfowl are the Naxian lagoons, of which the biggest and most important is the one located near the airport. Many interesting and rare species can be seen here during migration. The following list of birds observed during migration can be supplemented by the list of winter visitors, some of which are present in very large numbers during migration.

The most conspicuous birds during migration are likely the Hoopoe (Upupa epops) and the Bee-eater (Merops apiaster).

Hoopoe, photo by G. Beriatos

Bee-eater, photo by G. Beriatos

Many species of raptors can be seen on Naxos during migration. All the European species of Harriers occur, especially the Marsh Harrier (Circus aeruginosus). Good numbers of Black Kite (Milvus migrans) and Honey Buzzards (Pernis apivorus) are regularly seen. Short-toed Eagle (Circaetus gallicus) and Levant Sparrowhawks (Accipiter brevipes) can also be observed. Occasionally Lesser Spotted Eagles (Aquila pomarina) are sighted. Very conspicuous and exciting is the appearance of the beautiful Red-footed Falcon (Falco vespertinus) at the end of April and beginning of May.

Red-footed falcon, photo by Th. Gaitanakis

The best places for viewing migrating waterfowl are the lagoons, especially the large lagoon at the airport. Many species herons can be found there, such as Purple Herons (Ardea purpurea), Squacco Herons (Ardeola ralloides), Night Herons (Nycticorax nycticorax), Great Egrets (Egretta alba), Little Bittern (Ixobrychus minutes), Glossy Ibis (Plegadis falcinellus), Spoonbills (Platalea leucorodia) and White Storks (Ciconia ciconia). Other migrating species (though rarely seen) are Spotted (Porzana porzana) and Little Crakes (P. parva). Nearly all the species of European waders can be observed on Naxos. Very common along the coast is the Common Sandpiper (Actitis hypoleucus). Most Sandpipers and Stints occur (Tringa and Calidris spec.), as well as the Ruff (Philomachus pugnax), the Ruddy Turnstone (Arenaria interpres) and the Black-tailed Godwit (Limosa limosa). Rarities such as the Marsh Sandpiper (Tringa stagnatilis), the Curlew Sandpiper (Calidris ferruginea), the Broad-billed Sandpiper (Limicola falcinellus), the Great Sand Plover (Charadrius leschenaultii), the Great Snipe (Gallinago media) and the Collared Pratincole (Glareola pratincola) have been observed over the years. All the species of European terns can be observed (Sterna and Chlidonas spec.) and gulls, mainly the Mediterranean Gull (Larus melanocephalus). Ducks are present in smaller numbers, but of special interest is the rare Ferrugineous Duck (Aythya nyroca). A species that is commonly observed during migration is the Quail (Coturnix coturnix).

Diurnal migrants, such as the swifts (Apus spec.) and Swallows (Hirundo rustica, Delichon urbica, Riparia riparia and Ptyonoprogne rupestris) can be seen in large numbers. Also very abundant are Yellow Wagtails (Motacilla flava), Whinchats (Saxicola rubetra), Red-backed Shrikes (Lanus collurio) and Tree Pipits (Anthus trivialis).

Other species common on migration are Lesser Grey Shrikes (Lanius minor), Short-toed Larks (Calandrella brachydactyla), Mistle Thrushes (Turdus pillaris) and Redwings (T. iliacus), all Flycatchers (Ficedula spec.), Common Redstarts (Phoenicurus phoenicurus), Icterine Warblers (Hippolais icterina), Willow (Phylloscopus trochilus) and Wood Warblers (P. sibilatrix), Garden Warblers (Sylvia borin), Common (S. communis) and the Lesser Whitethroats (S. curruca) and Sedge Warblers (Acrocephalus schoenobaenus).

Species that occur during migration in smaller numbers on Naxos are for example the Cuckoo (Cuculus canorus), Golden Oriole (Oriolus oriolus), Red-throated Pipit (Anthus cervinus), Isabelline Wheatear (Oenanthe isabellina), Brambling (Fringilla montifringilla), Ortolan (Emberizia hortulana) and Rock Bunting (E. cia).

Biotopes of Naxos

Birds found in the agricultural landscape around the Chóra include the following common species: Crested Lark, Goldfinch, Linnet, Greenfinch, Cirl Bunting, Great Tit, House Sparrow and Hooded Crow, and more rarely the Barn Swallow.

In cultivated tree-rich landscapes such as that pictured above, nesting species include: Common and Long-legged Buzzard, Kestrel, Hooded Crow, Woodchat Shrike, Sardinian, Subalpine and Orphean Warbler, Cirl Bunting, the finches (Chaffinch only in the higher regions), Great Tit, Stonechat and the rare Olivaceous Warbler.

Open macchia and shrubs attract Black-headed Buntings, Stonechats, Subalpine Warblers and the rarer Orphean Warbler. Furthermore Sardinian Warbler, Greenfinch, Goldfinch, Linnet, Great Tit, Cirl Bunting, Kestrel, Common Buzzard, Turtle Dove and Nightjar can be found.

On these dry cultivated plains nest Crested Lark, Corn Bunting, Cirl Bunting, Linnet, Goldfinch, Greenfinch, Black-eared Wheatear and Woodchat Shrike.

Typical breeding birds on dry slopes with low vegetation are Linnet, Goldfinch, Sardinian Warbler and Cretzschmar’s Bunting, Chukar, Nightjar and Black-eared Wheatear. In the rocky areas Blue Rock Thrushes and Kestrels can also be found.

Only on the highest mountains can Northern Wheatear, Wrens, Crag Martins and Woodlarks be found, as well as Bonelli’s Eagles and Ravens. About 20 years ago Griffon Vultures nested in this quiet valley West of Mount Kóronos.

In wooded mountain valleys one can observe the species Blackbird, Nightingale and Cetti’s Warbler in addition to the abundant finch species, Cirl Buntings, Great Tits and warblers.

In the typical green cultivated valleys of Naxos occur nearly all the breeding songbirds found on the Island.

Spotted Flycatchers, rare in the Aegean Sea islands, nest in the olive groves of the Tragaía. Common species of the olive groves, apart from the usual songbirds are several species of nesting owls, most commonly Little and Scops Owls, more rarely one can find a Long-eared Owl. Collared Doves nest in villages and Barn Owls will also nest in old churches or other uninhabited buildings.

At the lagoon near to the airport nest several waterfowl species as Little Grebe, Moorhen, Coot, Water Rail, Black-winged Stilt, Stone Curlew, Little Ringed and Kentish Plover. During migration many species of waders and herons,and some duck, tern and gull species can also be observed. Peregrine Falcons can be seen harassing the waders and waterfowl in this area.

In the Juniperus stands on the sand dunes of the Southwest coast of Naxos, many songbirds, such as thrushes, finches and warblers, can be observed during migration and in winter.

Nesting birds of the rocky coasts of Naxos are Peregrine Falcon, Common and Alpine Swift, Rock Dove and Shag. Yellow-legged and Audouin’s Gulls and shearwaters can often be observed flying along the coast or further off shore. Another species typical for these rocky coasts is the Pied Wagtail.

On the uninhabited Makares Islands just east of Naxos nest the Yellow-legged Gull, Cory’s and Yelkouan Shearwater, Shag and Eleonora’s Falcon.

further reading: Greek Ornithological Society

see also: Animals

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