The ornithologist
by Steven Tagle, Content Creator, New Agriculture for a New Generation

Meet Tonia

Tonia Galani, 31 years old, is an ornithologist and cofounder of the birdwatching company Plegadis. She lives in Ioannina and participated in the first class of the Alternative Tourism program at the American Farm School, a part of the “New Agriculture for a New Generation” program. She loved birds from an early age. In the spring, she would often spend a few weeks living with her grandfather in the mountains of East Zagori. “I remember that we had a cuckoo (Cuculus canorus) visiting the trees near our house in the early morning,” Tonia said. “My grandpa loved its morning song so much that he would often take out our old tape recorder and tape the cuckoo’s birdsong. Then he would play the tape in Ioannina during winter, so that he could be reminded of his village and the spring time there.”

Tonia’s grandfather taught her her first birdsongs and instilled in her a love in nature. “Birds are vibrant; they fill space with their energetic moves and their lovely colours. By observing them, you often get a better understanding of the place you are in. If you listen carefully, you can understand the changes in seasons. Birds are a reminder of never giving up and always trying to sing, no matter how hard a winter may be. So what’s not to love about birds?” Tonia chose to study biology at Aristotle University. Her love of birdwatching was sparked by a field trip she took to Lake Kerkini with an ornithology class. “When we arrived, I was amazed by the huge populations of cormorants and pelicans all fishing together,” Tonia said. “Then we got out the binoculars and fieldscopes, and everything we could see with our bare eyes became even more exciting, as we looked closer at all the birds in front of us. It was like watching a nature documentary live in front of my eyes. I got my first binoculars after that and ever since, there is not a bird that passes by without me turning my head to identify it.”

Indeed, when I met Tonia during the “Train the Trainers” event in Elatochori, I was charmed by her infectious, nerdy enthusiasm and her encyclopedic knowledge of the birds in the area. Often during our conversation, she would pause to identify the calls of sparrows, tilting her head as if listening to music. “If I had to pick my favorite bird, I’d choose the Pied Avocet (Recurvirostra avosetta) because of its rare beauty and unique beak. It is black and white and has very clean lines, and because of its curved beak, it searches for food in a very graceful manner, swiping left and right in the mud of the shores, and that’s a joy to observe.”

Founding the Birdwatching Company Plegadis

Tonia and fellow ornithologist Nikos Boukas founded Plegadis in March 2017 while working as ornithology researchers. They loved taking their friends on birdwatching trips to the Amvrakikos Gulf and the Delta of Kalamas River, two of the most important and bird-rich wetlands in Greece. “Epirus is a unique place for birdwatching because it balances both unique mountain areas like Zagori and Tzoumerka as well as beautiful wetlands,” Tonia said. “Zagori already attracts many nature-oriented visitors, and birding can enhance their hiking experiences.”

The duo overcame lots of bureaucracy to found Plegadis because birdwatching tours were a new concept in Greece. “We met with many employees from the Greek Tourism Organization, the Tax Office, and with accountants and lawyers in order to make sure that we complied with all the touristic legislation and tax rules,” Tonia said. “Then we chose the right equipment for our activities: binoculars, fieldscopes, digiscoping tools, field guides, kids' equipment, transportation. We visited many exhibitions to get our hands on as many binoculars and fieldscopes as we could, in order to decide which would best fit our expectations and budget.” The Alternative Tourism program helped Plegadis gain recognition and grow its network of local collaborators. Tonia and Nikos now work with other companies that offer alternative experiences in Epirus like mountain hikes or bike hikes and want to offer bird tours as well.

The Amvrakikos Gulf is one of Tonia’s favourite day tour spots because it's a large area that combines birdwatching and photography with exquisite culinary options. “We start our tour early in the day from the north part of the wetland. We hop into our 4x4 vehicle which has all the equipment travellers may need. Throughout the tour, we make short stops along lagoons or river marshes in order to observe and photograph birds with our equipment. It’s so rewarding to meet different people from around the world and to help them identify bird species that they have never seen before, or to teach beginners the basics of birding. We usually stop for lunch at Koronisia, a unique place located on a narrow strip of land between the sea and the lagoon. Then as we travel south, the evening colours create a picturesque atmosphere while flocks of birds fill the sky, flying back to their roosts. Our day ends with a meal in Preveza, which is known for its delicious seafood restaurants.” Nikos and Tonia’s guests often send them photos that they took during the tour, or even share pictures of birds they observe in their homelands.  

“Each year has been better than the previous, and we already have bookings for the upcoming spring months,” Tonia said. “Our dream is to further establish our presence in the alternative touristic package of Epirus and to promote the birdwatching interest in this protected area. We hope to make Greece a popular birding destination in the winter as well. Most of our customers come from Europe and America and visit in the spring and summer, but birdwatching in Greece is very interesting during the winter season too, because many species migrate here from northern or eastern Europe. Greek travellers are still not familiar with the idea of birdwatching. For this reason, one of our visions as ornithologists is to raise Greek travellers’ awareness and interest in birding, to help them recognize the beauty of birds.”