Lake Kerkini is a small artificial lake in Northern Greece. It drew my attention because it is the best place to photograph pelicans. More specifically the Dalmatian pelican (pelecanus crispus) which breeds there. This is a trip report with photos of pelicans and some advice on photography and visiting the lake.
Lake Kerkini National Park
Lake Kerkini lies in Northern Greece, close to the borders with North Macedonia and Bulgaria. On the north, Mt Belles (Mt Belasitsa in Bulgarian) forms a natural border with the three countries. Its southern slopes are visible from the lake. A beautiful scenery in winter, when snow covers the peaks. Quite a contrast to the warm climate at the lake!
The main source of water is the Strymon (Struma in Bulgarian) river which originates just south of Sofia, the capital of Bulgaria. In 1932 a water dam was built for agricultural purposes. Strymon river eventually flows into Aegean sea. Numerous fields of cotton dot the area around the lake. Hilly patches of land often feature neatly organised olive tree groves.
Lake Kerkini national park was only established in 2006. It is one of the most important protected habitats of Greece. There are more than 300 different bird species in the area. The most notable inhabitant is the Dalmatian pelican, the main reason we visited the park.
Dalmatian pelicans (Pelecanus crispus) are the largest members of the pelican family. They are also excellent fliers and watching them soar just above the lake surface was mesmerising. They are the most beautiful in winter, when in breeding plumage and with curly hair. In Slovenia we call them “kodrasti pelikan”, meaning “Curly”.
Here at Lake Kerkini, Dalmatian pelicans thrive. Local conservation efforts have increased their numbers and it seems that fishermen and pelicans learned to live together. Pelicans breed at the north end of the lake on man-made platforms where they are safe from predators. In winter they often flock around fishing boats, waiting for a treat.
One of the most memorable sights was watching them fish. They were forcing the fish into shallow waters then plunging into the water with their bills to make a catch. Black headed gulls and cormorants were accompanying them, hoping for an easy meal.
Photographing Dalmatian Pelicans
Lake Kerkini offers some of the best bird photography opportunities in Europe. The pelicans are quite habituated to people. Photographing from close distance is relatively easy. I advise against going on your own, trying to attract them. The best approach is to join a photography session with a local fishermen. They know how to attract them safely – with a fish bait. Experienced photographers can visit the lake independently and arrange a boat directly. However, if you prefer joining a photography workshop, there are many options.
Photography from the lake shore
There are two approaches to photograph them. First, from the shore. Here, it is possible to photograph the birds from a low perspective and also from very close. Even a wide angle lens can come handy! This is a great opportunity for some close up portraits. Sunrise is the best time to do it as the lake surface tends to be calm, offering nice reflections. Fisherman will attract pelicans by throwing a few fish in the water. Personally I prefer more natural photos and did not capture many photos of the birds squabbling for the fish.
Photographing Dalmatian pelicans from the boat
The second approach is from the fishing boat. A fisherman will take a few photographers on a boat and ride to the open water. Every now and then he will throw a fish so pelicans will follow. This is a fantastic opportunity to photograph them in flight. A 70-200mm or 100-400mm lens is the best here as the birds are large and get close to the boat. Fast shutter speed is also necessary to freeze the motion – unless you go for a more creative approach and experiment with slower shutter speeds. The best advice I can give here is to observe and learn the patterns of pelicans flying in, landing and diving for the fish. This way you can anticipate their movement and get more success with your shots.
Photographing pelicans in flight is fun. Since their behaviour is predictable and they are large birds, they are also easy to photograph. Make sure you have plenty of memory cards though! A single boat session can easily yield 2000 and more photos!
In the middle of the lake there is also a rocky islet where pelicans roost overnight. Or simply rest during daytime. This is another awesome spot for pelican portraits and to observe their behaviour.
Pelicans are wild birds and feeding and attracting them close to people does seem questionable. When I first visited the lake and saw the pelicans I had my doubts this is the right thing to do. Feeding wild animals often leads to changing behaviour, animals might get dependent on people and forget how to survive in nature. They might loose fear of people which could get them killed eventually. Good reasons not to feed them.
There are arguments in favour too. First, the fishermen and pelicans were traditionally competitors in fishing. If pelicans can become part of the livelihood of local fishermen and they care about the birds, this can be a win-win situation. At the moment this seems to be working well. Secondly, it seems the pelicans did not change their behaviour. They still fish in flock like they are supposed to and snacking a few fish from fishermen seems like a small supplement to their diet.
Let’s hope the balance remains and both pelicans and local fishermen can continue their life on the lake. What can us, the photographers do? Book a workshop with a reputable company or a photographer. If you go directly with local fisherman, make sure they treat the pelicans well. Follow the instructions of the fishermen – most of them know what is acceptable and what not. Know when enough is enough. Keep the feeding sessions short and focus on portraits when birds still stick around. Put your camera down and just enjoy the dalmatian pelicans. My favourite memory from Lake Kerkini is when we sat down on the shore and observed a large flock of pelicans fishing in a flock. What a sight!
Conclusion and useful links
Visiting Lake Kerkini sand its pelicans was one of the highlights of all my wildlife experiences. It is on pair with my East Africa travels in terms of photographic opportunities. While winter is the best time to photograph the pelicans I do want to return in spring. I can only imagine how rich the birdlife is in nesting season!
Here are a few links that might help you plan your trip.
Lake Kerkini National Park – Official website with useful information about the park and how to visit.
Bird photography workshop with Dancho Hristov – Dancho is an excellent photographer and an expert ornithologist. He runs this 8-day workshop in Bulgaria and Greece where one can photograph golden eagles, griffon vultures, spotted nutcrackers and of course dalmatian pelicans.
Limneo guesthouse – This is where we stayed. A nice, cozy guesthouse in a small nearby village. The village has everything you need, markets, restaurants and coffee.
Photo locations in Greece – Photohound is a friendly community where photographers share photo locations.
Thank you for reading this far and I hope you find this post useful. Let me know in the comments which photos do you lake the most!