On a sunny Aruban day (is there any other kind?) during March 2004, my wife and I were standing at Bubali Bird Sanctuary when we noticed a man carrying an enormous camera and bins striding towards us. His blonde hair and blue eyes would have fitted in with the local Dutch, but his face was definitely Slavic. He hailed from Bulgaria.
The name of this handsome chap was Emil Enchev. A veterinarian by training, his dream was to be a professional photographer. To that end, he was working on cruise ships to raise money and improve his English (which was already pretty good). First he commented that my wife resembled his dentist. Then he mentioned that we were the first sober Americans he’d met on dry land (I don’t think the pun was intended). He was my kind of guy.
Fall 2005: Casey and I’d been angling for a lengthy trip abroad in April/May 2006. We’d been considering Eilat, Israel, but the region’s instability had given us pause for thought. The problem was, that none of our friends were coming up with enthusiastic alternatives for that time of year. South Africa and Australia were better in the Austral spring. It was the rainy season in much of the Tropics. Then an e-mail arrived from Bulgaria. “I’ve started a tour company. Here’s my website. Want to vist?” It was from Emil. We went to the site. There was Emil, minus much of his hair, standing next to a VW van. Though his focus was mostly wildlife photography, he also co-led bird tours and knew the places to go and most of the birds. The price was great. And why not Bulgaria? Bee-eaters, rollers, hoopoes, pratincoles. Maybe not as stunning as broadbills and hornbills but still quite different. And we’d definitely be going to a land with different wildlife and different people.
.... Or would the people be different. Emil had mentioned that my last name was Bulgarian, not the first time I’d heard that. Russians always looked at me skeptically when I claimed a Russian heritage, usually without saying more. Well, as we often do, we bought a book on Bulgarian history before visiting the country. Lo and behold, Mlodinows appeared in the text. My dad was born in Kiev as had his father. He’d always identified himself as Russian (not Ukranian, interestingly). Nonetheless, my family name is definitely Bulgarian. Apparently, my dear brothers had already known this but neglected to inform their younger brother (feeling sorry for me yet?). Makes me wonder what else they are hiding. Maybe my mother’s family isn’t from Poland. Maybe Jacobovich is a traditional Kryptonite name. My patrilineage probably left Bulgaria in the early 1800s. There were several exoduses, the largest of which occurred in 1828–9 after a Russo-Turkish war. An estimated half-million fled into Romania and the Ukraine at that time.
So, I was not utterly shocked to find the Bulgaria Air waiting lounge in Amsterdam populated by folks that looked like they could be relatives. Though there is some ethnic diversity in Bulgaria (definitely a trend towards Turkish as one nears that country, and northern Slavic near the Romanian border, and a scattering of Gypsies throughout), the bulk of Bulgarians look rather similar (and not bulky, like those Cold-War-Era discus throwers). These are a blackish haired, fair-skinned (at least in spring) people with round faces, bearing moderately prominent cheek bones, wide mouths and full lips. Few are either fat or skinny. As they age, their characters appear strongly upon their faces. Their eyes vary from royal blue to jet black. The women were drop-dead gorgeous. The men probably were, too. It’s just something I generally don’t notice. Angelina Jolie would be slightly above average, especially if you take away all of the make up and air-brushing.
Anyway, we were mostly away from people, so I got whiplash rather infrequently, and Casey didn’t have to elbow me too much. We arrived at the Sofia airport on 15 April, having travelled about 40% of the way around the northern hemisphere. Immigration took forever, with the official repeatedly glaring down at the passport, up at me, down at the passport, and so on. After the hour long wait there, I was ready for customs to be a nightmare. Thus, I was astounded, and may I say, gleeful, to find it essentially unattended. And such was the way in Bulgaria. Variation from strict adherence to the rules to total disregard. One, of course, encounters this to some degree in every country excepting Germany that is. However the variance was more pronounced in Bulgaria than most other places I’ve visited.
An example of this relates to “registration.” Prior to 2006, one had to register with the police in every town you stayed at. In effect, this was carried out by filling out a form at the hotel, and the hotel passing such on to the police (where it was likely used as kindling). According to a U.S. government website (perhaps not the most accurate information source of late), this changed 1 January 2006. You simply fill out forms at the airport giving your destination, which we (but seemingly no one else) did. The immigration official took it without word, as if expected. Nonetheless, several hotels still filled out forms upon our arrival for the local police. Fortunately, they filled out the forms while we unpacked, so the process was not onerous. Having your passport with you, however, was key. Most of our birding was near various borders (Turkey, Greece, Macedonia, Romania). We were stopped on several occasions by border patrol. Mostly these were brief, but on one occasion, the guard took my passport, made phone calls, filled out forms, entered data into his computer. Heck, he used 19th, 20th, and 21st century technology all at once! Finally, he handed the passport back to me and, through Emil, told me to get a new one — mine was too worn for his tastes. Good fatherly advice, I am sure.
Anyway, back to the airport. We were greeted by a smiling Emil who whisked us and our luggage into his waiting van. And we were off. Soon Sofia was in the rearview mirror and ahead laid a rolling countryside of pastures dotted with copses of woods, bordered by hedgerows, and encompassing charming red-tile roofed villages. We stopped at one farm near Pirdop and had a dark-orange bellied Barn Swallow, apparently one of the more southern races, and a vagrant. We also had my only bee-eater, a fly-over, alas. This was a theme that was to continue. Spring migration was late, alas, even though the weather was pleasantly warmer than expected. This first stop also yielded our first Red-rumped Swallows (which we saw at a number of spots later). Why, precisely, was this bird on my Most Wanted List. Beats me. I do like swallows, often combining elegant lines and bright colors, as the Red-rumped does. This bird’s glossy blue contrasting with bright orange is rather appealing, even if orange-and-blue were my high school colors.
So, here I must confess a Cardinal Sin. No, nothing naughty with crested red birds. I didn’t keep a daily list. I didn’t keep careful trip notes. Maybe it was having a guide. Maybe it was the added time involved in the photography I am now doing. Maybe it was fumbling with place names and 17 straight days of birding. But, whatever the reason, I was negligent. Ahhhh. Confessing feels so good. However, you will not find my usual “drive .34 km and turn ssw” type directions in the notes that follow. Most of it is a story. Yes, there are pearls to be gleaned about Bulgarian birding, but you will not be able to organize your own trip to Bulgaria from what I’ve written.
Okay, back to the story. Our first dinner was at a trout farm. An open air restaurant along a small highway not particularly near any large burgh. It was filled with smiling and happy customers. It was surrounded by lush woods and meadows. Most of the customers were in their 20s to 40s, dressed in nice (and often quite tight) jeans and black leather jackets. The trout could be had in more than a dozen ways, the potatoes in more than 20 forms. My trout was pulled out of the pond, and then baked in foil after being stuffed with figs, onions, and raisins. It was incredible. The potatoes were, of course, fried and spiced. All very yummy.
Our first night was spent in a charming guest house in a small village named Kalofer. Modest on the outside, the rooms were wonderful. Snug but somehow roomy, clean, brightly decorated, and with a private bathroom. Our hosts were delightfully friendly and welcoming. We slept the sleep of the exhausted.
Food and Lodging
Our lodging varied, as one would expect, depending on location. Our favorite places were guest houses, usually in smaller to mid-sized villages. These sometimes provided meals with advanced warning, sometimes not. They often would provide breakfast but not early enough for a birder. They were uniformly comfortable, clean, and we were made to feel welcome. All had a very homey feel. At Kalofer, they did make us breakfast. It was a pie with a filo dough crust filled with eggs and tangy white cheese. The coffee was potent and tasty. All of our other breakfasts were provided by Emil, our tireless guide, who managed dawn to dusk cheerfulness. He always had breakfast ready at the time of our choosing: coffee, cheese, fruit juice, smoked meat, bread, sometimes hard-boiled eggs (accompanied by his special mixture of spices and salt), pastries, and yogurt. At times Emil seemed disappointed that he was not providing us with us with a hot breakfast, but we were most pleased by this hearty spread and had not tired of it after two weeks.
Initially, we stopped at restaurants for lunch. However, at many places this wound up sucking an hour or two out of the middle of the day. As time progressed, and especially in nicer weather, we took to partaking of the same foods for lunch as we’d had for breakfast – picnic style at some birding spot.
Dinner service ranged from lighting fast to unbearably slow. Mostly, the timing was reasonable. My brother Len had mentioned that he’d had fabulous produce on a business trip to Bulgaria a number of years ago. Things hadn’t changed. Definitely veering off the Slavic track, 10 or more salads were available on most menus. One, I swear, had 30 varieties to choose from. Unlike American salads, these are based not on leafy vegetables but chopped cucumbers and tomatoes plus white cheese. The traditional Shopska Salad had these ingredients and often a wonderfully sweet, soft marinated red bell pepper and onions. This is the “traditional” Bulgarian salad. It is served with vinegar and sunflower oil on the side. Another common salad was the Shepherd’s Salad. This was like the Shopska, but had hard-boiled eggs, ham, or some other hearty protein added. Very fresh and quite lovely. Interestingly, the Greek Salad had relatively few olives, no pepperoncini, but did have a small school of anchovies atop. The anchovies, however, were not our tinned anchovies but fresh anchovies — slightly salty and not very “fishy” tasting. We never were brave enough to try the “Russian” Salad, the first two ingredients of which were potatoes and mayonnaise. We’ve become so attached to our Shopska that we’ve had it almost nightly since our return; the toppings vary, with me often adding olives or capers, pepitas (salted roasted pumpkin seeds), a bit of summer sausage, and using olive oil instead of sunflower.
Soups were generally popular and tasty but low in spice. Indeed, we found spice (from peppers to garlic) generally somewhat lacking compared with our usual food choices. Beef was also generally hard to get. Pork was IT. The food of choice for main course, though fish and chicken were typically available. One lunch was ground pork stuffed with ham, cheese, and mushrooms and topped with a fried egg. Oh, and with three pork sausage links on the side. Surprisingly tasty, and the size of the salad that preceded it stopped me from eating enough to cause cardiac arrest.
Some other interesting food tidbits: Cakes, from grandiose to the equivalent of Hostess brand abounded and were tasty. Even the “Seven Days” brand, available in gas stations and the like, had some really good stuff. Alcohol is served in prodigious quantities. Trying to get a glass of beer would invite scorn. It is served by the liter. Their wine is drinkable, but not nearly as sharp as ours. Indeed, growing your own is popular. In villages, many (if not most) households have a small scaffolding with grape vines draped over it. Many folks make their own wine from their own grapes, and that which we sampled was pretty tasty. Melnick Red (from Melnick in southwestern Bulgaria) lived up to its reputation as a wonderfully fruity, but not sweet, eminently drinkable wine. Another popular food is yogurt. You can get it from cows, sheep, or goats, though cow-milk yogurt is most popular. It is full-fat, tangy, unfruited, and refreshing.
So, onto the birding. I will think of Bulgaria as the land of Nightingales and Corn Buntings. These seemed always within earshot, and though the buzzy song of the Corn Bunting is as modest as its dull brown appearance, the song of the Nightingale is varied and cheerful, heard virtually throughout the day and night. Yes, Chaffinches were everywhere as well, and they are quite pretty in the brick orange, purple-blue, and their voice is pleasant. I guess I have grown so familiar with them from my visits to England, that they didn’t seem particularly “Bulgarian.” Same for Chiffchaffs, except they are dull to look at or listen to, unless you are torturing yourself by trying to discern which race you are looking at. Another seemingly ubiquitous species was Common Cuckoo. These I will associate with Bulgaria. They seemed everywhere, making you feel somewhat as if you were being perpetually pursued by a clock.
Our first morning was spent in the grasslands at Balkan National Park north of Taza. This was a lovely grassland below gentle snow-capped mountains. Emil quickly summoned up Crested Larks and Isabelline Wheatears (the only place we saw the latter species). Also, a cute ground squirrel known as a Souslik was common. Because of the late spring, however, there were no Black-headed Buntings and only one Red-backed Shrike. We continued onwards to our first major destination, the Srebarna Nature Preserve along the Danube River. We stopped briefly on our way at the Ivanovo Monastery, a relatively old but modernized monastery built into a cliff face. We went there to look for a raptor or two and scored on our first Egyptian Vulture. They are the most common vulture in Europe. Still, this bird was a dream bird of mine since childhood. I remember seeing Wild Kingdom or such. A black and white bird with graceful lines and a golden face scrabbling with large gangly vultures that looked cartoonishly brutish and clumsy in comparison. But what really caught my youthful fancy was that they were purported to be the only bird that human shit – ahem, feces that is. And here, over the monastery, the beautiful gorge, the babbling stream, was an Egyptian Vulture, searching for....?
Shortly after the vulture flew over, I heard a song from the brush that reminded me of a Warbling Vireo. I pished quietly, and the bird stopped singing, but shortly thereafter there was a rustling in the bushes nearby. I continued to pish softly while standing absolutely still, bins almost at my eyes. The bird came exceedingly close, yet almost magically remained obscured in the bushes. Then Bam! Twenty feet away out in the open was a gray warbler with a dark face and a bright white eye — an Orphean Warbler. The song was nice, though I am not certain it is worthy of bearing Orpheus’ moniker (more on Orpheus later).
Okay, here’s a secret of sorts, though many Brits will swear I am absolutely wrong. Indeed, many have to my face. Pishing works in Europe. Not as well as in North America, but pretty well, especially on tits, warblers, and finches. Compared with pishing in North America, one needs to be more hidden, move less, and generally remain more cryptic, but it really works. I have photos of Sardinian Warbler, Chiffchaff, Coal Tit, Reed Warbler, and others solely because of pishing. All four Subalpine Warblers were silent birds that we’d likely have missed had they not pished in. As in North America, different species respond differently. Chaffinches approach nervously but fairly close, calling almost continuously. A small amount of movement will cause them to spook, but they come back fairly quickly. Hawfinches, on the other hand, pish in at a moderate distance, often silent. When they see you move, they are gone for good. Nightingales, cuckoos, Hoopoes – forget it. They have no interest in pishing.
Our second and third nights were spent in the town of Vetren, close to the famous Srebarna Nature Reserve where Dalmatian Pelicans breed. The guest house here was equally unimposing from the exterior and equally clean, comfortable, and homey on the inside. The only negative aspect was that only one restaurant was open in the village, and it was SSSSSLLLLOWWWWW. Inside, there sat a small group of locals, smoking merrily away and watching a very loud TV. The door was open, even though the temp outside was in the 50s, meaning it was also quite chilly. After ordering, it took 45 minutes just for the salads to appear. If they’d only let my wife back there, she’d have had a wonderful complete dinner cooked up by then.
Srebarna is a magnificent reserve. Unfortunately the flooding Danube eliminated some of the shorebird habitat we’d hope for, and the birds were fairly distant. Frogs and toads were everywhere, a sign of a healthy ecosystem. Choruses of the most common frog, the Marsh Frog, were almost overwhelmingly loud at times, each one going “quok, quok” not unlike a Black-crowned Night Heron. Despite the flooding, we were able to see the Dalmatian Pelicans and get some good looks at Pygmy Cormorants, a very cute, small, stubby billed cormorant that I found very endearing. We also had superb looks at Squacco Herons, another bird that I’ve always wanted to see for reasons that aren’t exactly clear. There are more magnificent and interesting looking herons in the world that have not caught my fancy nearly as much. Squacco Herons are colored somewhat like a breeding plumaged Cattle Egret and have some of the jizz of a night-heron. Maybe it’s just being able to say the word “Squacco” that I like.
Out over the marsh fed hundreds of terns, mostly Whiskered, but also plenty of Blacks and a few White-wingeds. I would have liked to have studied them more closely, but alas, the world isn’t always what you desire. Other highlights were nice views of nesting Great Crested Grebes and shimmering deep chestnut Ferruginous Ducks. It was here that we had our only Water Rail, a calling bird.
Our next destination was the area around Balcik, including a small bit of steppe habitat that dips into Bulgaria, as well as some marshes and small woods along the Black Sea. We stayed at a small, quiet, comfortable hotel in Balcik, itself, with a nice view of the harbor. All around were huge Las Vegas style hotels were under construction. Not just one or two, but dozens. We saw this at virtually every seaside town we stopped in. After they are all completed, all the tourists in Europe wouldn’t be able to fill them. This frenzy started because Bulgaria has great scenery and was very, very cheap. Brits started buying vacation and retirement properties. Then came vacationers. Then the hotel boom. Apparently a similar event occurred in Spain a decade or two back, and most of those hotels are tottering ruins, scabs on the landscape. Emil fretted over this, seeing his quaint home being altered. Hopefully, the Spanish experience will not be repeated. For the time being, we found the area quite charming, even with the construction.
Our first attempt at birding this area was met by a morning of dense fog. Alas, birding open areas like steppe are not enhanced by such conditions. The morning quickly turned into a flower photography expedition. There seemed to be irises of every hue in bloom and we set to taking their photos (while sneaking photos of each other lying in precarious postures). The fog only partly lifted that day, to be followed by a light rain with a moderately easterly breeze that persisted into the next day. That next day we started at Sabla Lake, a small freshwater lake/marsh bordered by a strip of trees about one kilometer long and a hundred meters wide. As we drove up, flocks of passerines flew out of the bushes along side the road. This is what is known as a “good sign.” Indeed, it was our only passerine fallout of the trip. The frustrations of the previous day’s fog were about to lift. That strip of trees near Sable Lake, particularly the flowering fruit trees, were crammed with warblers, flycatchers, and thrushes. I forgot all about the lake. In five minutes we had five species of flycatchers: Spotted, Red-breasted, Collared, Semi-collared, and Pied. Actually, only about half of that strip of trees was really birdy, making the concentration even better. There were about 75 Chiffchaffs, 4 Willow Warblers, 25 Lesser Whitethroats, 10 Reed Warblers (not including those in the marsh), 2 Marsh Warblers, 10 Blackcaps, 4 Wrynecks, 15 Nightingale, and our first vagrant, or at least minor rarity, a Thrush Nightingale. This bird actually did seem to at least pish up out of the deepest cover and gave me a nice 45 second unobstructed view. We also ran into some of those other oddities that occur during fallouts, such as a moorhen flying in off the Black Sea and crash landing in some brush (I guess it didn’t see the marsh 250 meters away). We also flushed a Quail from grass within the trees. Typically a bird of open fields and extremely secretive, we were very lucky to see this bird, though we heard it elsewhere. Sabla Lake was fabulous, reminding of birding the Chicago lakefront during my childhood, only with Chiffchaffs instead of American Redstarts and errant Quail instead of Black or Yellow Rails.
Driving away from this feast we saw our first Rollers — brilliantly aquamarine and apricot birds the size of a fish crow with sturdy beaks. Total eye candy. As were the flocks of Hoopoes, which are flicker-sized birds colored peach, black, and white, with large erectile crests and a long slender curving bills. Hoopoes look like the kind of bird someone would make up to decorate china dinner plates or velvet wall hangings, not a real living creature somehow carved out by evolution. Our next target was a much larger lake/marsh named Durankulak. Again, high water levels thwarted shorebirding desires, but despite being a tad early in the season, we did find a Paddyfield Warbler – a rather dull marsh bird that is of local occurrence in Europe. We also came across a Balkan Whipsnake, which became a somewhat unwilling photographic subject. This individual was glossy and smooth black above. The bird highlight of Durankulak was a Citrine Wagtail, a true vagrant virtually anywhere in Europe. These beautiful yellow and gray birds are more of central Asia. We pursued it for about 15 minutes, getting decent looks through the scope, but it always managed to stay just outside of photography range. There were also many “Black-headed” Wagtails, the southeastern European race (species?) of Yellow Wagtail about. These birds are stunning black, green, and yellow. Among them was a small flock of the race thunbergi, sometimes called “Gray-headed” Wagtail. These nest in northern Europe and were just passing through, and I am uncertain as to their status in Bulgaria. While birding this lake, we could look out to sea, and a steady stream of Arctic Loons (that’s Black-throated Diver for any Brits reading this) moved past. This set me pondering about the potential benefits of a seawatch.
After Durankulak, we finished the day out on the steppe again, but this time the sun shone. Hefty Calandra Larks with their little bow ties made aerial sorties to impress potential mates. Their fluttering flight and contrasty white-edged black underwings could be quite startling, causing me to think I was seeing a shorebird or something else quite different from a lark. Conversely, the Short-toed Larks sedately foraged for seeds at field edges. Both were exceptionally tame, at least when approached via vehicle. The other avian highlight out on the grasslands were the aptly named Pied Wheatears, dapper in their black-and-white plumage. And I finally found out what “mad as a March hare” really meant or looked like anyway. I don’t really know, but I suspect hormones are the base problem. I realize, we weren’t technically there in March, but I still think the pair of crazed hares we encountered were definitely under the influence. They chased each other hither and yon without any attention to their surroundings, including us. Had we been eagles, they’d have been “what’s for dinner.” This went on for 15 minutes or so (talk about endurance) before they finally noticed the humans chasing them around. We never did actually determine whether we were watching an unwilling gal hare trying to avoid an unwelcome suitor or a male trying to avoid a fight or worse. Either way, I am sure it was a hare-o-wing experience.
The passage of divers got me thinking, always dangerous. When we awoke the next morning and there was a) no fog and b) easterly breezes, so we headed to the tip of Cape Kaliakra. Cape Kaliakra sticks straight south into the Black Sea after the coast curves eastwards from Balcik. The Cape has much history, with fortifications dating back to the 4th century B.C. and a museum commemorating some of the few glorious moments in Bulgarian naval history, including the defeat of the Turkish fleet in 1791 and the sinking of an Ottoman gunboat in 1912. There is also a stunning obelisk named “The Gate of the 40 Maidens; it is some 40 or more feet tall and depicts a series of entwined women standing upon each other. This monument is to honor 40 Bulgarian women that jumped into the sea, hair purportedly tied together, to avoid the invading Ottoman horde.
Indeed, Bulgarians love their monuments, and they should. They are artful, passionate, evocative. There is one at the tip of the Cape wherein an archer is reclining while aiming his bow-and-arrow out to sea. Sadly, there were no plaques or anything else to truly explain its meaning, date of creation, etc. The weathered stone, angles of the man and his weapon, and background scenery were really breathtaking.
But we’d not gone there to look at statuary. Arriving an hour after sunrise, the first bird to pass was a Parasitic Jaeger (apologies to my European friends, that’d be Arctic Skua). Black-throated Divers went by in lines, a couple Red-throated Divers/Loons with them. A Red-necked Phalarope passed. Hundreds of terns fed below the cliffs while hundreds more flew past; most were Commons but we had a few Gull-billeds in the lot. We also had well over 100 Mediterranean Shearwaters. On the lee side of the cape, Little, Mediterranean, Lesser Black-backed (apparent fuscus), and Yellow-legged (and Caspian?) Gulls fed beneath us among Black-necked (a.k.a. Eared), Great-crested, and Red-necked Grebes. A true delight, even without a mega (though, dang it, I know there was one out there somewhere!). After 3 days in the Balcik region, we headed south for the vicinity of Burgas with a brief stop near Varna.
This is a good time to take a short break and sing the praises of our guide. Mr Enchev was amazingly attentative, always concerned about our well-being, having our needs and wants met. He was endlessly patient with two high-strung people, knowledgeable about birds and other wildlife, and a dang good photographer. Patient, energetic, full of humor – the ideal guide. All of the many pleasures we enjoyed were due to his tireless planning and forward thinking.
Back to Varna. Or near Varna. Emil was concerned that the industrial backdrop would be displeasing. Not when shorebirds abounded. This spot, on the backside of a very long lagoon that extends westward from Varna (and near the village of Beloslav), harbored 16 species of waders (including our only Temminck’s Stint), gave us our only Ruddy Shelducks (it is one of those birds that is common in captivity, causing folks to totally underestimate its beauty – what a stunner), our first Cetti’s Warblers (common along coast in scrubby marsh borders from here south). Farther south we started find Great Reed Warblers to be common in many marshes. We never did get Savi’s Warbler, apparently just a bit too early in the season.
From Varna, we continued south almost until we almost reached the town of Sarafovo. Just north of that town were saltpans also filled with shorebirds. There were 2000-3000 Ruff (Sadly, almost none in breeding plumage. It should be noted that they do call, a weeee or weeee-weeee that is slightly shrill – ie, not a pure whistle – and a bit inflected and very distinctive; they don’t call as often as many shorebirds, but they were far from silent and, contrary to other books, didn’t grunt once.), 120 Black-tailed Godwits, 150 Spotted Redshanks (many in glossy black, speckled white plumage), 50 Wood Sandpipers, 30 Marsh Sandpipers, 45 Common Greenshank, 60 Curlew Sands, 30 Little Stints, Dunlin, Kentish Plovers, a Gray Plover, and many avocet and stilt. Plus 4 Collared Pratincole. I love pratincoles. Shorebirds turned into swallows. On the ground, they look like peculiar dingy terns. In flight, graceful lines and muted but attractive colors. Their behavior and appearance is so unlike other birds, that shorebird hunters in Barbados didn’t shoot one that appeared there because they thought it some kind of hawk! Anyway, though I’d already seen an Oriental Pratincole in Britain (talk about your Mega-Rarities), I’d wanted to see one again for the 15+ years that followed, and I was delighted. Other birds of interest at the saltpans included Little Tern and Slender-billed Gull.
Over the next several days we plied the Burgas Lakes and surrounding areas. From a birding standpoint, this was mostly disappointing. Water levels were high, making many traditional shorebird areas poor. We did get some additional distant views of spoonbills and Glossy Ibis (we’d seen them at Srebarna); we also visited a wet pasture and saw pratincoles again and flushed a great number of snipe, though no Great Snipe (did see one Jack Snipe), and there were 100+ Wood Sandpipers (for North American birders, worry not, if you hear one flying over, you won’t mistake the call for a yellowlegs. Now Spotted Redshank, you might easily hear that and think “Semipalmated Plover” – a truly stunning resemblance. Maybe Spotted Redshanks evolved from Semi Plovers....). The big lakes also harbored hundreds of white pelicans.
We also visited the Sandwich Tern breeding colony near the Salt Museum. It isn’t huge, but we got fabulous views of Sandwich Terns and Mediterranean Gulls there.
It was in the pastures around the Burgas Lakes that I jumped out of the van and whipped off my pants not far from a couple (male) gypsies that were fishing in a ditch. These folks don’t seem surprised by much, but I’d bet they’d not seen an American hopping about, desperately trying to pull off his pants, thus exposing his bright white backside, cursing loudly the entire time. Despite attempts to be stoic, they couldn’t help staring surreptitiously. I won’t get into the details, but let me just say all’s well that ends well.
One foggy morning, we thought we had a shot another migrant fallout. In any case, the fog was going to prevent any open country birding. There was another cape nearby, Cape Maslen, south of Sozopol. Unfortunately, most of the peninsula was too wooded to concentrate a fallout. The scrubby tip still had some migrants, though, including Red-breasted Flycatcher (difficult in spring) and a Moustached Warbler (a very out-of-habitat marsh species that is difficult to find in Bulgaria, though it breeds in neighboring countries). The woods here are gorgeous. They still hold much real wildlife, such as Wild Boar, and were formerly the favorite hunting grounds of that appropriately infamous Romanian, Nicolae Ceausescu. We were treated to a Horned Viper, a Fire-bellied Toad (when taken from the water, they “hide” by placing their front feet over their eyes and covering their thighs with their back feet), and courting Marsh Frogs. We also saw a resplendent native red tulip.
Emil and I had plotted a birthday celebration for Casey on 22 April, since it was her birthday and all. This took place at the hotel in Sozopol. Emil’s friend, Stoian, had brought a cake all the way from Varna, made just that afternoon, while the hotel placed flowers at the table, and we arranged for a bottle of Bulgarian champagne (sparkling wine for you Francophile purists) to accompany dinner. It was wonderful. It did come out of the bottle the color of amber ale which, given the gasps of our hosts, apparently wasn’t its normal color. Apologies were warming up, but it tasted fine – actually fairly good. So, we drank and shrugged off efforts at opening another bottle. The cake was a chocolate, fig, and cream affair that was utterly scrumptious. Cakes and sweets are a big deal in Bulgaria, something which the Rough Guide to Bulgaria quite correctly points out. For dinner, Casey and I both had tripe in butter (stop your gagging), which was, thank you, perfectly divine. Almost as good as me mum’s.
The time came to leave the mostly sunny, but cool, days along the coast and head inland. The first stop was the bowl of an ancient volcano near Madzaravo. Here Egyptian and Griffon Vultures breed and the occasional Black Vulture from Greece appears. The trip started auspiciously as a huge wild boar with substantial tusks dashed meters in front of the van as we passed through some deep woods. The good luck continued as the drive over became a raptor-fest. Not up to the standards of their fall migration, I am told, especially in numbers of individuals, but I was happy with 16 species of raptors in a day (if you split Steppe Buzzard, that is). On the way, we passed through rolling countryside with green pastures and stone houses (glistening from the mica in the stone) topped by red-tile roofs. Horse-drawn carriages became common. If a Hobbit had stepped out of one of the homes, I’d not have been surprised. Adding to this ambience was the presence of stork nests in many (most?) villages. White Storks have been considered a sign of good fortune since the Middle Ages, and so they traditionally nests on poles on the edges of villages, completely tame. Interestingly, sparrows (most often Spanish Sparrows) make their nests inside the sticks of the stork’s nest. And, for a moment’s digression, I’d like to mention that Spanish and House Sparrows hybridize not infrequently in Bulgaria. The Collins Guide (and others) mention hybridization in Italy and Switzerland, and refer to this “stable hybrid zone” as Italian Sparrow, but the zone of hybridization is clearly larger.
The old volcano was a land of steep hillsides and jagged cliffs adorned by white-flowering fruit trees. And the sun was shining and it was warm. We (or I) finally began to relax.
That night was spent in Madzaravo. This was one of our encounters with Mother Russia. Though a “3-star” hotel, they had no heat, were fastidious in checking our passports, and chafed mightily at a request for TWO pillows per guest instead of one. The rooms came with one, not two. Two was cheating, even if the hotel was 75% empty, and there was a veritable Disneyland of pillows available. If we got two, we’d be getting something extra and that wasn’t right. Don’t even ask about our attempts to get more toilet paper.
The next day was spent birding between Madzaravo and Krumvograd. The highlights were a distant Black Vulture and a not distant Blue Rock Thrush singing from a damn over the Arda River. The scenery remained craggy and stunning, the weather warm and sunny.
That night was spent in Krumvograd. And that hotel really was Mother Russia, both in personality and appearance. The hotel was a huge gray blocky affair. The woman working the front desk was sealed in by glass (though the town was quite safe). Passports were carefully checked. Keys had to be left with the clerk every time you left the hotel. The elevator must have been from the 1940s. The door was like the door to a closet, with a handle that turned and such. If you opened the door and the elevator wasn’t there, Hello elevator shaft. Every time we stepped in, we prayed for deliverance. The floor numbering system was also peculiar. There were 2 second floors, 2 third floors, etc. So our “third” floor rooms were actually on the sixth. Fortunately, someone had written the true floor numbers next to each button in the elevator. But hey, we had Scops Owls singing outside our window. Really, what more could you ask for. The beds were comfortable, leading to a good night’s sleep, the first night anyway. On Friday night, Krumvograd Rocks. About 9 pm, a huge thumping sound penetrated our room. At first, I thought someone in the hotel had a boombox, but then I stepped out onto the porch and realized the sound emanated from town center. Casey and I, with our earplugs and such, were able to sleep. Not so poor Emil who was kept awake until 1 am by the music.
I did get up to hit the bathroom around 2:30 am. This had become a pattern. Up at 2:30, a visit to the bathroom, and then about 30 minutes to fall back asleep – a version of jetlag no doubt. After my 2:30 perambulation, I heard this scraping sound, like that of a desk being dragged across a wood floor. There was no pattern. It would last for a few seconds, then a pause of variable length, probably never exceeding a minute or so, and then another drag. Funny thing was, we were on the top floor and the floors were carpeted. Emil had heard the noise as well. Ghosts from the bad old days is my guess. I am just glad they gave us peace in the elevator.
One morning out of Krumvograd we spent near the village of Zelezari and the nearby Bjala River, only 3 or 4 kilometers from the Greek border. Near the town in hedgerows and such, we found several Orphean Warblers and a very cooperative Barred Warbler (we’d gotten Subalpine Warbler at Madzaravo and later near Rupite but dipped on it here). There was also a stunningly cooperative Woodchat Shrike and my first real dung beetle, pushing a turd-ball about 3 centimeters across. The walk to the river, about 5 or 6 kilometers, was filled with Bonelli’s Warblers, but alas, no Olive Tree Warblers; perhaps a tad early.
Another morning was spent at Dona Kula, fruitlessly looking for Rock Nuthatch but seeing yet another Blue Rock Thrush close up. Good guess. We were birding muddy forested hillsides. Okay, the hillsides were rocky and swept down to a winding stream lined with stately cottonwoods. Again, Middle Earth. Where were those Hobbits.
The next major stop was Trigrad Gorge. Among Bulgarians, it is famed for its stunning scenery; among birders for Wallcreeper. But first, more about the gorge. The river that has formed the gorge drops into a deep cave and disappears for a kilometer or two, and it is into this cave that Orpheus is rumored to have descended to retrieve his dear Eurydice from Hades. Orpheus, a Thracian King descended from the Gods, could sing unlike any mortal. Good enough to pay his way across the River Styx. Good enough to tame Cerebrus. He sang to the god of the underworld and won his love’s freedom..... as long as he didn’t look back until reaching the land of the living. Alas, as these tales go, Orpheus did look back, Eurydice did get sucked back into Hades, and poor Orpheus descended into his own inner Hell. Not content to suffer alone, he wandered the countryside singing unbearably woeful songs until the followers of Dionysus couldn’t take it any longer and lopped off his head, tossing it into the River Mesta (another place we birded). Eventually, the head, still singing, fetched up on the shores of Lesbos, where it started to spout prophecies, and became a famous oracle, rivaling the one at Delphi. And no. Even though its song is just fine, the Orphean Warbler just doesn’t live up to its name, unless it has some unpublicized tendency to foretell the future.
Anyway, on our way to the Gates of Hell, just after turning off the highway, we found a Rock Bunting – a superb pink breasted sparrow with a black-and-white striped head. Upon arriving at the cave (the spot where you park and begin searching for Wallcreeper), we heard a baying hound. It was ceaseless. We named it Cerebrus, though it only sounded like it had three heads. With the woeful beast and the cold drizzle, the tale of Orpheus was easy to believe. Wallcreepers, however, weren’t. Not a sign. It is actually amazing that anyone sees them. You spend your time, neck craned as far back as it will go, looking up sheer cliffs for a small gray bird (yes, the same color as the cliffs) clinging to the rock face. Actually, they are most often spotted when the fly from spot to spot, revealing brilliant red stripes on their wide butterfly-like wings. We were told our luck would likely be better if we returned between 10 am and noon the next day.
So, we retired to the local guest house in the town of Trigrad. Another quaint inviting place to spend an evening. This one even had a common room with a huge roaring fireplace and spectacular views. If that wasn’t all enough, traditional Bulgarian music, quite upbeat and cheerful, played in the background. This guest house was really more of an old fashioned inn. The common room was filled by the laughter of its guests and the welcoming smiles of the proprietors. The dinners were traditional, warm and hearty. One night succulent trout, the next a filo dough filled concoction.
The following morning was misty and cold. We walked the road up the hillside (elevation 1200+ meters) and had a European Three-toed Woodpecker, Black Woodpecker, many Firecrests and Goldcrests, Bullfinch, Common Crossbills, and so forth. Not bad really. We then descended to the gorge; two hours, lots of Cerebrus, no wallcreeper. The Gods were definitely punishing us for over-confidence, even if we hadn’t looked over our shoulders. We retreated upstream to picnic, seeing a number of Gray Wagtails (beautiful soft gray, white, and yellow creatures with long tails that they, yes, wag) and White-throated Dippers. Dippers in America are all mouse-gray. In Europe, the are basically brown and with a white throat. Some have dark brown bellies, others bright chestnut, and others yet, mixed. Despite having a wide selection of literature at home, upon my return I was unable to discern what Balkan dippers are supposed to look like. In southwestern Europe, chestnut-bellied. In northern Europe, dark-bellied; well, we saw several chestnut birds and one with a very dark belly. Whether this was some well-established local variant or a wanderer from the north, I’ve not found out yet.
We started out early the next morning for Rupite, where there was a fish hatchery, hot springs, cliffs for Rock Nuthatch and Rock Sparrow, and the Abbey of Vanga – a blind woman who could see the future. Like the Wild Boar drive, this one had a Jackal early on. I was rather shocked to see what looked very much like a Coyote at the edge of a vineyard/brushland, but Jackals share the long faces and long legs of a Coyote and are similar in size and, actually, color. We arrived in Rupite towards mid-day with a welcome warm sun beaming down upon us. For the first time, dragonflies and other insects truly abounded. After a nice repast of olives, white cheese, smoked turkey, and bread, we birded along the cliff face, turning up both Rock Nuthatch and Rock Sparrow. Black-eared Wheatears bobbed from the crest, looking down upon us (as they should). An abandoned building housed a suite of nesting Red-rumped Swallows. It was starting to reach that Middle Earth feeling. This was only highlighted by bugs. Yes, the bugs. After finding our target species, Emil and I started looking around to do some macro photography. The scarlet-red poppies played host to a potpourri of creatures. Imagine an emerald green grasshopper on a brilliant red petal. Or a gold-and-black spider on the same background. Fabulous.
We headed toward the Abbey. The bushes produced Whitethroats and another beautiful brick-red and blue-gray Subalpine Warbler, looking crazed with its scarlet eye-ring. There were huge copper colored damselflies that were the female version of the nearby purple and blue ones. A dun-colored robberfly ate a hapless lime-green beetle. Unusually tame Great Reed Warblers sang from atop phragmites giving wonderful photo-ops. Finally, we headed towards our last cozy guest house, and after stowing our luggage, had a final traditional meal with lovely lamb stew up the hill. In the evening sun, the strongly etched sandstone hills glowed orange, reminding me of Canyonlands and Bryce in Utah.
Sadly, it was back to civilization the next day. And as Vanga is no longer among the living, and I ain’t no Orpheus, I still don’t know if I’ll ever see a Wallcreeper.
Great Crested Grebe
Mediterranean (Yelkouan) Shearwater
Black-crowned Night Heron
Greater White-fronted Goose
Lesser Spotted Eagle
Common (Steppe) Buzzard
Little Ringed Plover
Common Ringed Plover
Yellow-legged (nominate) Gull
Yellow-legged (Caspian) Gull
Lesser Black-backed Gull
Eurasian Scops Owl
Great Spotted Woodpecker
Middle Spotted Woodpecker
Lesser Spotted Woodpecker
Eurasian Three-toed Woodpecker
Yellow (Black-headed) Wagtail
Yellow (Blue-headed) Wagtail
White-throated Dipper (expected chestnut-bellied form plus one dark-brown bellied, apparent cinclus)
Blue Rock Thrush
European Reed Warbler
Great Reed Warbler
Lesser Gray Shrike
Eurasian Tree Sparrow
Common Reed Bunting
Common Tree Frog
European Pond Terrapin
Common Green Lizard
Balkan Green Lizard
Common Wall Lizard
Balkan Wall Lizard
Erhard’s Wall Lizard
imm. Orthetrum species