In conjunction with the British-Bulgarian Friendship Society and the Bulgarian Society for the Protection of Birds, fifteen Hertfordshire based birdwatchers (many being members of the SE Herts RSPB Group) spent eight days visiting some of the top birding spots to be seen around the Black Sea and Rhodope Mountains in May 2006. The group was led by Phil Blatcher (of the SE Herts RSPB Group) and Lyubo Profirov, a very knowledgeable and experienced Bulgarian birdwatcher and biologist. We also had the services of Alex, our coach driver who seemed unfazed by many of the small tracks down which we travelled and Mytko, our organiser and logistics guide.
We left from Gatwick airport on a Friday afternoon scheduled flight with Bulgaria Air, arriving in Varna on the West coast of the Black Sea around midnight local time. After a welcome snack and some wine, we retired to comfortable rooms in the Hotel Aqua.
Day 1 Saturday 6th May
Yellow-legged Gull, House Sparrow, Starling and Jackdaw were present around the hotel as we left to travel south down the coast for a three night stay near Burgas. Our first stop overlooking Yatata Marsh (about 25km W of Varna) produced Black Tern, White-winged Tern and Whiskered Tern, Squacco Heron, Pallid Swift, Garganey, Great Reed Warbler, Cetti’s Warbler and Pygmy Cormorant, the latter a ‘lifer’ for many of the group. Moving on around to another vantage point over the lake, we had our first Red-rumped Swallow, superb views of Golden Orioles, Hawfinch and heard a reeling Grasshopper Warbler.
Our next stop took us to the picturesque site where the river Kamchia enters the sea, about 25km S of Varna. As we strolled in an upstream direction, we encountered Common Sandpiper on the far bank, and several raptors including Montagu’s Harrier, Lesser Spotted Eagle, Black Kite and a distant Red-footed Falcon. As we retraced our steps and walked towards the beach, we had our first sighting of a Syrian Woodpecker, distinguished from Great Spotted by its pinky vent and distinctive semi-collar pattern. On the beach we found Little Ringed Plover and White Wagtail.
We made one more short stop to pick up a Black Stork and another Red-footed Falcon before reaching the forest at Goritza. Hoping to see many of the area’s woodpeckers, we were somewhat dismayed to find a lot of recent forestry work had been carried out in the area. Although no woodpeckers were seen, our prize was a Semi-collared Flycatcher along with two Short-toed Eagles and some common woodland species such as Short-toed Treecreeper and Nuthatch. Lunch at the café across the road was a pleasant affair and one of our group braved the local delicacy of tripe soup – it was unanimously agreed that it was an acquired taste, particularly after the addition of a concentrated garlic relish.
Dropping down off the mountains, we had our first views of the area surrounding Bourgas, and our next stop around Pomorie (see Dave Gosney’s Finding Birds in Bulgaria, available from www.birdguides.com). We managed to pull off the busy straight road N of Pomorie for a good position over various saltpans.
We were greeted with a large flock of small waders and, being British birdwatchers accustomed to such sights, we immediately jumped to the conclusion that they were Dunlin. However, we quickly realised that there was not a single black belly to be seen….and then the penny dropped that we were viewing several hundred Little Stint and bemoaned our ability to judge scale! Corn Bunting, Red-backed Shrike, Common and Little Tern, Ruff, Avocet, Grey Plover and Little Gull were also present. Crossing the busy road to get closer views of the seaward saltpans, we found our first Black-headed Wagtail – a stunning bird which posed well for all of us.
We then moved to the saltpans along the Pomorie peninsular adjoining the Salt Museum a little way NE of the village of Pomorie itself where we found Black-winged Stilt, Whinchat, Little and Sandwich Tern (about 120). It was only a short distance to our hotel in Sarafovo, a large village a few km NE of Burgas, and 7 or 8 Squacco Herons were seen from the coach – an excellent end to the day.
Day 2 Sunday 7th May
As we left the Hotel Mirana for a pre-breakfast stroll, we were met with the sound of fluting Golden Orioles and later, good views of these spectacular birds. At the sea, we saw Shelduck, Black-throated diver and a distant Curlew. Corn Bunting and Red-backed Shrike were common and a Spanish Sparrow flew into view. Both Pied and Spotted Flycatchers were evident along the cliff scrub and we ticked our first Collared Dove.
After a leisurely breakfast, we picked-up Little Egret as we drove past Lake Atanasovsko, the most northern of Burgas’ three main lakes. At the NE end of Lake Mandra, we pulled in at Uzun Geren overlooking a small area of shallow water. Here we spent time sorting out Wood Sandpiper from Marsh Sandpiper along with some fine Spotted Redshanks, Black-winged Stilts, Teal and Ruff. We moved on to gain a vantage point on a hillside overlooking the southern shore of the lake where we had a Great White Egret along with several Whinchat, Common Buzzard, Skylark and Turtle Dove. Several butterflies were flying in the warming mid-morning air, including Adonis Blue (Polyommatus bellargus ) and Small Copper (Lycaena phlaeas).
On our way back towards the coast, we encountered our first Rollers (3), seen well from the coach. Next stop was the BSPB managed Poda reserve at the head of Lake Mandra. Here visitors can enjoy the excellent facilities at the visitor centre, including a viewing platform giving 360° views over the whole reserve. Butterfly enthusiasts were met with the trip’s first Southern Festoon (Zerynthia polyxena) and Swallowtail (Papilio machaon). We were hoping for a not too common Oystercatcher along the shoreline but the presence of several fisherman put paid to that particular target. However, we were kept fully occupied with lots of other species, including good views of two Glossy Ibis at the N end of the reserve. Several Black-necked Grebes in summer plumage were scoped out on a very calm sea while the reserve itself held Reed Warbler, Spoonbill, Shoveler, Pintail, Garganey and Squacco Heron. Two Purple Heron were also seen by some.
We headed off to some lunch with one of Lyubo’s many friends in the area; Russi who lives in the village of Dolno Ezerovo on the lake’s NW shoreline. Over a bowl of delicious ‘green’ soup and yoghurt, it became clear that Russi had conducted a BTO Breeding Bird Survey on his local patch that very morning and had recorded Black-headed Bunting, yet to be seen on the trip. He kindly escorted us back to his 1km square and we soon had a distant but recognisable view of a Black-headed Bunting (little did we realise at this stage what superb views we would get later on in the trip). Two White Pelicans were seen flying over. We made our way back through the village to the lakeside jetty where we stood in awe of the spectacle of c.500 White Pelicans flying in from the S – and we saw why they are described as ‘embroidering the sky’ when a large flock is seen in flight. As we left, a fly-by Purple Heron was welcomed by those that missed them at Poda earlier in the day. A Great Reed Warbler also showed well in the nearby reeds.
The final port of call for the day was the SW area of Lake Atanasovsko. We walked along a path with an obscured view, past some allotments (and a old Penduline Tit’s nest) and onto a viewpoint over the lake. Here, two of our party managed to identify a Broad-billed Sandpiper among the many hundreds of small waders which were mainly Curlew Sandpiper, Dunlin and Avocet. We then moved on up the W side of the lake to a building (hide) which was unfortunately closed but we managed to get good views of Gull-billed Terns, Grey Plover, Whiskered Terns, Mediterranean Gulls, and a (very ruddy) Turnstone.
Day 3 Monday 8th May
Our pre-breakfast stroll took us W up the road leading to the main E87 by-pass and, although as cool as one might expect for 7 o’clock in the morning, the mosquitoes were already out in force. The highlight was undoubtedly a Red-breasted Flycatcher, which kept itself somewhat obscured from view in a bush by the side of the road. A Lesser Whitethroat was also seen in the main market square.
On route to our first stop at Lake Atanasovsko, we had Woodchat Shrike, Roller and Grey Partridge (two running along the track in front of the bus for some considerable distance). We parked up in an area on the NE side of the lake. A cracking start was made as we disturbed a Little Bittern and then Olivaceous Warbler was heard and then seen in the scrub. Marsh Frogs and a Common Pond Terrapin lazed at the water’s edge. As we made our way through the scrub to an area overlooking open water, we saw a large flock of White Pelicans, undoubtedly the same flock we had seen the previous afternoon. Those up front were lucky enough to separate a Dalmatian Pelican from two birds flying together. Three raptors flying overhead were identified by Lyubo (whose raptor ID skills were exceptionably sharp) as male Levant Sparrowhawks – a real highlight of the day. A Greenshank showed nicely in the area of open water while two Rollers performed on the nearby wires.
We backtracked and, with a choice of warbler hunting in the scrub or a longer walk away from the lake into more open habitat, we decided to go for the latter and were rewarded with our first Collared Pratincoles and a single Tawny Pipit. A Fire-bellied Toad was heard calling and Marsh Harrier, Lapwing, White Pelican and a hare were seen as we walked back to the bus which had moved around the lake to pick us all up.
Onto the village of Poroy (about 22km NNE of Sarafovo) where we parked on a slope overlooking a reservoir and immediately identified Isabelline Wheatears, looking somewhat less bold than the Northern ones we are used to back in the UK.
Looking down to the reservoir margin, we saw many Ruddy Shelduck, Black, White-winged and Common Terns and four Spoonbill. Behind us in the disused sand quarry, our first Bee-eaters were busy feeding (with nest holes evident in a distant cliff face) and a suslik (a type of ground squirrel) showed well. As we returned to the bus, a Quail was heard calling in the long grass and a Lesser Spotted Eagle circled away from the village.
Our next stop was nearby Poroy Wood, a traditional site for Masked Shrike but we were warned that it might be a little early in the season. A woodpecker flew passed us and then, landing in a nearby tree, showed the distinctive collar pattern of a Syrian. An Ortolan Bunting quickly followed. A Woodchat Shrike appeared as we walked out into the more open area back near the road.
Our picnic was a fairly leisurely affair until the threat of rain injected a sense of urgency and we retreated to the bus but not before a Black-headed Bunting and Black-headed Wagtail entertained us nearby.
On the way home to our final night in Sarafovo, we stopped off at Alexandrovo to walk down to where in previous years a pair of Eagle Owls have nested. After a 20 minutes walk, we arrived at the site but without prior knowledge and in poor visibility, it proved impossible to locate any evidence of the owls. A chat with a local shepherd made us non the wiser. The rain showed no real sign of easing so we aborted the plan and made our way back to the bus. However, it was in fact the rain that saved the afternoon and was clearly responsible for ‘bringing down’ nine Red-footed Falcons onto nearby wires and the ground where we had the most fantastic views of male and female birds together with several Rollers. A Tawny Pipit (and a fine Black-headed Bunting) further up the track completed the sense of satisfaction that we were not beaten by the poor weather.
On the way back home, we drove past the Pomorie saltpans and saw Black-tailed Godwits and many Curlew Sandpipers but decided against stopping.
Day 4 Tuesday 9th May
No pre-breakfast walk today as we made an early start to our next three night stay at Madjorovo in the East Rhodope Mountains. We encountered a Jackal sauntering across the road as we made our first stop at an open glade near Fakia (about 20km SW of Burgas). We were greeted by a Woodlark and then fine views of a Sombre Tit. Red-backed Shrike, Hawfinch, Whinchat, Honey Buzzard and Sparrowhawk completed the picture. Back in the bus and onto Fakia Forest, a delightful open mixed wood.
Lyubo soon latched onto a Shrike and, by quietly attracting people’s attention, we all had our first views of a Masked Shrike – a spectacular bird made all the more enjoyable by the lowering of our expectations the previous day. Another Ortolan Bunting showed well and many butterflies were already enjoying the warming early morning air; these included Green Hairstreak (Callophrys rubi), Scarce Swallowtail (Iphiclides padalirius), Wood White (Leptidea sinapsis)and Yellow-banded Skipper (Pyrgus sidae). We disturbed a Roe Deer and found a Herman’s Tortoise, along with the trip’s first Yellowhammer and Calandra Lark. We continued on our journey, with some excellent birding from the coach – Black Kite feeding on a road kill, Common Buzzard, Isabelline Wheatear, Corn Bunting, Turtle Dove, a cracking male Montagu’s Harrier, Roller, White Stork and a very close encounter with a Lesser Spotted Eagle in a roadside tree.
A couple of stops around the village of Elhoro added Raven to our rapidly growing trip list. Next stop was an Imperial Eagle site – and I think that we were all surprised by the choice of location; right in the middle of a not too substantial Poplar tree no more than 500m from the road and next to a busy vineyard. We all managed views of this spectacular raptor but wished to keep any disturbance to a minimum, so did not linger at the site, and we made our way to a picnic lunch beside a lake at Izyorovo.
At least two of us saw a Ruddy Shelduck fly away from the area as we approached, an uncommon bird in this area apparently. During lunch we saw Little Ringed Plover, Whinchat, Long-legged Buzzard and clouds of butterflies, including Lesser Fiery Copper (Lycaena thersamon), Glanville Fritillary (Melitaea cinxia) and Knapweed Fritillary (M. phoebe).
On our way again, and from the bus, Black Stork, Woodchat Shrike and Linnet. Stopping at Jerusalimovo (about 10km NW of Svilengrad), we found a splendid Olive-tree Warbler in an . . . . almond tree along with yet more Woodchat Shrikes, a Long-legged Buzzard and very close views of a Honey Buzzard flying past.
Onto a roadside stop on the edge of the reservoir at Ivajlovograd (about 5km E of Madjorovo), a fairly distant Squacco Heron impersonated a plastic bag for a brief while and we did not tire of another fine Black-headed Bunting while a Quail was heard as we boarded the bus.
An Alpine Swift was spotted as we approached our final stop of the day; by the cliffs at Kovan Kaya which form part of a volcanic caldera surrounding the old mining village of Madjorovo. Straining our necks skyward, we saw our first vultures; both Griffon and Egyptian. A Blue Rock Thrush was spotted flying high up the cliff face and, slightly further down the road, very visible whitewash below a hole in the rock face gave away the presence of Peregrine nest with adult and chick. The sight of a Rock Nuthatch nest cemented to the back wall of a cave being used by a Griffon Vulture whetted our appetite for a possible encounter with its constructor later on in the trip. We called it the end of a long day and gratefully checked-in to the Hotel (Pay) in Madjorovo.
Day 5 Wednesday 10th May
We started our pre-breakfast stroll with a Little Owl on an nearby chimney and heard some vociferous Nightingales as we made our way up a track and away from the village. Woodlark, Turtle Dove, Red-backed Shrike, Hawfinch and Blackcap were easily seen and heard as we paused to enjoy Red-rumped Swallows gliding in to collect mud at a small pool. We were treated to more than one Lesser Spotted Woodpecker which appeared relatively common around this area. We heard, but failed to see, a Wryneck and Hoopoe.
We headed for the area around the village of Studens Kladenets, stopping at Saru Kaya for good views of a Griffon Vulture on a nest with a chick. A Black-eared Wheatear also put in an appearance.
On our way we saw a fine female Goshawk and reached our first stop around the reservoir wall at Studens Kladenets where Black Stork, Grey Heron, Great Tit, Short-toed Eagle and two Honey Buzzards were seen. We reached our main appointment at the vulture feeding station at Potocnitca at about 11am. In fairly blustery conditions, we climbed to the vantage point overlooking the area where the meat is placed for the benefit of not just the local vultures around Studens Kladenets but also Black Vultures from Greece, over 100km away. The distances involved meant that the birds had remained in the area overnight before returning to their colony the next day. We saw 23 Griffon vultures fly off a nearby crag but they appeared uninterested in the food so kindly provided for them. Perhaps we had arrived too late or perhaps they were just not in the mood! Whatever the reason, and after 45 minutes or so, no vultures ventured onto the station and we decided to wander back down to the bus to return to the village, stopping off on the way at a small cemetery and were treated to superb views of a Barred Warbler. An Orphean Warbler was seen briefly by some and subsequently its tail projecting from its nest was seen by all. A Colorado beetle was admired for both its beauty and its capacity to destroy and was declared a ‘lifer’ for many of the group. We enjoyed a pleasant picnic lunch in a grassy area by the roadside in the village of Studens Kladenets before venturing into a scree covered area overshadowed by the crag we saw earlier from the feeding station. The wind was extremely blustery and prevented us from adding much to our list that particular afternoon. We decided to venture back to our hotel, calling in on the BSPB visitor centre on the outskirts of Madjorovo where we stocked up on postcards, guidebooks and gained a much better impression of the area from the 3D relief map on display.
Day 6 Thursday 11th May
We took a different route from the previous day’s pre-breakfast walk, walking down the track that led to the next nearest settlement of Brjagove, W out of the village. A Chiffchaff/Willow type warbler was seen reasonably well in a trackside bush and the yellow/green rump gave up the bird’s ID as Bonelli’s. We proceeded down the track towards the river, picking up Spotted Flycatcher and Cirl Bunting in the misty conditions. Alex, our bus driver, kindly responded to a phone call and picked us up, returning us to the hotel in time for breakfast.
Afterwards as we left the village, an Alpine Swift flew by the coach. Several stops on the way to Dolna Kula found us admiring Egyptian Vulture, Short-toed Eagle, Red-backed Shrike, Black-headed Bunting and a very conspicuous Nightingale out in the open perched on a wire.
At Dolna Kula, we stopped to scan an open field and quickly picked up a lone Stone Curlew. This was followed by an unfamiliar loud call and a cuckoo type bird flying across the view of the forward party right into a bush – a Great Spotted Cuckoo for those lucky enough to see it! We all had good views of three Black Stork nests on the far cliff then Lyubo drew our attention to a small hole near one of the nests – vaguely familiar and looking very similar to the nest we had seen previously near Madjarovo. Our patience was rewarded with good scope views of Western Rock Nuthatch around its nest site, once again built in the shelter of a much larger bird. Our search for Chukar also bore fruit with distant views of two birds up high on the slopes. The previous day’s frustrating experience with Orphean Warbler was remedied as one bird conveniently perched close by for us all to get views. Other birds in the area included Golden Oriole, Roller, Bee-eater, Hobby, Turtle Dove, Spotted Flycatcher, Whitethroat and a Common Sandpiper down by the river. However, this particular site continued to surprise with the distinctive cuckoo call being heard again and the Great Spotted Cuckoo was seen flying and landed in a tree across the river. It gave time for all of us to see the bird well before it flew off. As we made our way back to the bus congratulating ourselves on this cracking bird (Lyubo had last seen one ten years ago), our first Kingfisher darted along the river but was too quick for all to see.
After a picnic lunch near the small cemetery overlooking the river, we started off home, calling in on a Cromlech (ancient Stone Circles) on the way. What an enchanting spot this was - as we walked through open meadows filled with orchids and butterflies, a woodpecker flew across our path and landed in a tree nearby.
Partially obscured as it climbed the trunk, we contained our impatience to see it head but the wait was worth it. The vivid scarlet cap confirmed that we were looking at our first (and last) Middle spotted Woodpecker – superb. A Quail called in the long grass as we returned to the bus for the final time that day which had yielded some quite excellent birding.
Day 7 Friday 12th May
Before breakfast, a stroll around the hotel produced a close encounter with a Lesser Spotted Woodpecker as well as Hoopoe, Wryneck (calling only), Turtle Dove, Golden Oriole, White Wagtail, Great Tit, Little Owl and Red-rumped Swallow. We packed our bags for a move to the Hotel Mourgavets at the ski resort of Pamporovo, high in the Rhodope mountains. On the way we made several stops including:
1) A site looking onto Fist Rock (near Gnyazdovo village) and overlooking the western end of the Studens Kladenets reservoir where we had a great hour’s birding; Roller, Bee-eater, Masked Shrike, Woodchat Shrike, Peregrine, Tree Sparrow, Corn Bunting, Turtle Dove, Black-headed Bunting and over towards the water, Grey Heron, Little Egret and Great crested Grebe.
2) The river at Kardzali; an unassuming stop in the middle of a large town but good views over the broad river Arda which flows through the town; Mallard, Common Tern and superb views of a Little Bittern.
3) Kmeta Café on the road climbing into the mountains. Fortunately, we had anticipated that it might be closed and had brought provisions for a picnic lunch; Crested Tit at its nest, Black Woodpecker flying over and Raven.
4) Smolyan lakes (near Pamprovo); Black Redstart (the first of many), Hobby, Crossbill, Yellowhammer, Mistle Thrush and some common birds such as Blackbird and Coal Tit.
Day 8 Saturday 13th May
Waking up to screaming Pallid Swifts from our 6th floor rooms (and Hobby heard but not seen), our pre-breakfast stroll around the resort revealed the full extent of the rapid (and seemingly uncontrolled) development – hotels and apartments all at various stages of completion did nothing to recommend the area from a scenic point of view. Black Redstart were common and we managed to see Swallow, House and Crag Martin, Whinchat, Raven, Robin, Hooded Crow, Goldcrest, Crossbill, Hawfinch and Red-backed Shrike.
On our way to the well known Wallcreeper site at Trigrad Gorge, we had White and Grey Wagtail, Alpine Swift and Red-rumped Swallows from the bus. At the Gorge, we had our first good view of Dipper and Grey Wagtail and one managed a quick glimpse of a Common Redstart. Birders who had previously been staying at the same hotel in Madjorovo were seen scoping from a roadside vantage point just before a short tunnel and, pulling over, they told us that a Wallcreeper had just been seen straight above their (precarious) position. We disembarked and, making sure that no-one stepped too far back to get a better angle, were treated to some great views of a Wallcreeper, creeping and flying high above our heads. We did not linger and moved up the valley to the Devil’s Throat. Parking in the village of Trigrad itself, we undertook a delightful walk along a Roman Road, passing butterfly filled meadows and a likely looking area for Rock Bunting which unfortunately did not give up its bird. Lunch at a local café consisted of a ‘Bulgarian omelette’ (similar in many respects to a ‘Spanish omelette’), beer and yoghurt and in the background, a spit-roast lamb over an open fire for consumption by the villagers later that day. On our way back, we stopped again for Wallcreeper and, after good views of a Peregrine flying over the gorge, one of our group managed to pick up a Wallcreeper with his naked eye well over 500m away on the rock face. Despite the difficulty of describing where the bird was at this distance, everyone managed to get on it in the end.
Our driver dropped us off a short distance from the hotel so that we could walk back through some pine forest and perhaps see our first Nutcracker. We saw Goldcrest, Siskin, Great spotted Woodpecker and Crossbill. We also had reasonable views of two Ring Ouzels, perched and flying around dense pine forest which contrasted with the habitat of moorland streams and ravines more normally associated with these birds in the UK.
Day 9 Sunday 14th May
A pre-breakfast stroll failed to produce the longed for Nutcracker and, moving onto our final destination of Sofia and our flight home early the following day, we took the opportunity to take in the sights around Wonderful Bridges (Èudnite mostove Wunderbrucken), a series of spectacular stone arches. On the way, we stopped off for a scan of the surrounding hills and no sooner has a passing ranger told us of Chamois in the area, than we saw a large Chamois high up on the hillside, quickly followed by a Golden Eagle which soared above the skyline and then landed in a tree but we were unable to re-locate it. At the arches, we enjoyed being tourists in every sense of the word, clutching our cameras and enjoying the marvellous shapes carved in the limestone by the river. Two backpackers, who had walked over the mountains from Plovdiv were grateful for a lift with us back down to the main road, although quite what they made of the various brief birding stops on the way is anyone’s guess.
We continued on our way but plans to have a look around the monastery at Baèkovski were thwarted by the Sunday crowds and a full car park. We did however manage to pull in at the Spetema Café (just before reaching Asenovgrad) where we took the opportunity to amble up a track alive with butterflies. Some of us were so engrossed by this spectacle (particularly of several species feeding at a ‘salt’ lick) and capturing it on ‘film’ that we missed the main birding highlight – a Rock Bunting (and Ortolan Bunting) which showed well in a bush up on the hillside above the café. There was just time for a group photo before we departed to make our deadline of 3pm in Plovdiv where one of our group had a bus to catch to Istanbul.
Lunch at a restaurant preceded an hour’s stroll around what is widely accepted as Bulgaria’s cultural capital and we were lucky to have Mytko guide us around and provide an interesting historical talk on some of the town’s main sites. Tree Sparrows were chirping on every house corner throughout the town and easily outnumbered House Sparrows. Plastic soffits have clearly not yet reached Plovdiv.
We reached the very comfortable Hotel Ambassador in Sofia (near the foot of Vitosha mountain) and were told that Corncrake had been heard calling behind the hotel the previous evening. So, after our farewell dinner, some of us venture out onto what is effectively a building site. Our concerns over being savaged by guard dogs were overshadowed by our desire to hear the distinctive calling of a Corncrake. However, we heard nothing and retired to the bar for the last time.
Day 10 Monday 15th May
Although we agreed to meet at 05:30 for a very early flight home, we had 5 minutes to venture out into the hotel carpark and heard the grating ‘crex crex’ of a Corncrake. This turned out to be the 207th and final bird of the trip.