BULGARIA IN SPRING – THE GRAND TOURWednesday 11th May 2016
Wednesday 11th – Sunday 22nd May 2016
We all met at the unsociable time of 3.15am for our 5.30am flight to Varna on the Black Sea coast of Bulgaria. The flight was delayed by thirty minutes whilst they appeared to be waiting for a passenger but we were soon on our way and it was good to leave a wet and dreary UK behind for 12 days!
The weather was warm and sunny as we arrived in Varna and here we met up with Dobry, our good friend and local guide who was with us for the first couple of days. After loading up the vehicles we left the carpark and spotted our first RED-BACKED SHRIKE of the day, perched on a perimeter fence whilst a NIGHTINGALE sang nearby.
The journey to our hotel took around an hour and we made an unplanned stop where we saw a small party of WHITE PELICANS circling overhead.
Other species noted along the way included TURTLE DOVE, KESTREL and RED-BACKED SHRIKE amongst others.
We arrived at our hotel and after some time to unpack we met outside for lunch, where most of us had the fresh fried sprats served with several salads.
Afterwards, we made a short drive to an area of steppe grassland where we found our first NORTHERN and ISABELLINE WHEATEARS whilst the air was alive with the songs of SHORT-TOED, SKYLARK and CALANDRA LARKS, all of which gave good views as we walked along the track. A STONE CURLEW gave reasonably good views as it wandered across the plains before it flew off to the south side of the track.
Several TAWNY PIPITS were seen and on the scattered bushes were many CORN BUNTINGS plus RED-BACKED SHRIKES and a couple of LESSER GREY SHRIKES. HOOPOES zipped past as did several parties of TURTLE DOVES and across the road we saw WHITE STORK and MARSH HARRIER.
Moving nearer to a farm, we stopped to watch a LITTLE OWL perched on top of telegraph pole and whilst here we were treated to a superb display flight by a pair of ROLLERS that were moving along the line of telegraph poles. A couple of male BLACK-HEADED BUNTINGS sang from bushes and a male WHINCHAT perched on top of dead plant.
With the afternoon wearing on, we drove down to a bay close to Kaliakra where a couple of BEE-EATERS were seen on our way down and a TURTLE DOVE was spotted alongside a COLLARED DOVE which gave good comparisons.
Down at the cove, the nearby reed-bed was alive with the song of GREAT REED WARBLER and CETTI'S WARBLERS whilst overhead we found ALPINE SWIFT, RED-RUMPED SWALLOW and more BEE-EATERS. Further along the path we found one of our main targets, a pair of PIED WHEATEAR which gave good views as they flitted about on the rocks.
Out on the sea several SANDWICH TERNS passed by plus we had several flybys of the Mediterranean race of SHAG. After a look here we took a stroll along the valley and in a small pool were MALLARD and LITTLE GREBE plus flyby PURPLE HERON and MARSH HARRIER and an adult NIGHT HERON perched up in a tree for us.
Despite a good search, we didn't find any Eagle Owls so we headed back to the hotel for a shower followed by a cold beer and then we enjoyed a fantastic evening meal before heading off to bed, after what had been a really long but rewarding day.
Thursday 12th May 2016
We awoke to find it had rained overnight and we met for a relaxed breakfast at 8.00am which went down really well, especially the much needed coffee!
Our first port of call was the nearby steppe grassland which saw the usual CALANDRA LARKS, ISABELLINE WHEATEAR, TAWNY PIPIT, SHORT-TOED LARKS and a couple of STONE CURLEW. Further along the track we found SPANISH SPARROW, CRESTED LARK and TREE SPARROW plus a female WHINCHAT.
Taking a different road towards the coast proved beneficial with a distant WOODCHAT SHRIKE, LONG-LEGGED BUZZARD and cracking male BLACK-HEADED BUNTING singing from a disused building.
With the weather warming up nicely, we headed to Cape Kaliakra where the place was alive with butterflies. ADONIS BLUE, SMALL COPPER, CLOUDED YELLOW, WALL BROWN, SMALL BLUE and a HUMMINGBIRD HAWKMOTH were seen as we moved off from the carpark.
Excellent views of PIED WHEATEAR were had as they sang from the walls of the old church whilst overhead we had stunning views of several ALPINE and COMMON SWIFTS. A NORTHERN WHEATEAR also sang and our first of around 15 RED-BREASTED FLYCATCHERS were noted.
We walked very slowly along, checking all the suitable habitats and we managed to find LINNETS, SANDWICH & COMMON TERNS plus a surprise of up to three COMMON DOLPHINS and HARBOUR PORPOISE.
A moulting BLACK-THROATED DIVER was seen on the sea and a lovely HOBBY gave eye level views as it zipped past the headland. More PIED WHEATEARS and RED-BREASTED FLYCATCHERS were seen before we retraced our steps back towards the van.
It was great to get back and have a drink, as the day was getting hotter and soon we were on our way towards our lunch stop. We stopped briefly to look at the wildflowers growing close to the road which were a picture in the sunshine.
Arriving at the restaurant for lunch, it was great to sit down and have a break and once again, the food didn't disappoint with lots of rather tasty dishes.
Leaving the restaurant, we drove towards Cape Kaliakra and didn't get far when David spotted a superb NIGHTJAR sitting on a bare branch, which was a superb feat as we were traveling at 40mph! We reversed back and had brilliant views as it sat there unaware of its audience.
Moving on, we drove a short distance to an area of scrub and grassland which held singing WOODLARK plus HUNGARIAN and YELLOW-BANDED SKIPPER amongst others. An EASTERN OLIVACEOUS WARBLER chased another around before coming back to sing from a perch and a SHORT-TOED EAGLE was seen flying away. As we walked through the swathes of wildflowers, a chattering song from a Sylvia warbler could be heard and it turned out that it was a superb male BARRED WARBLER which showed well and made occasional song flights.
Whilst watching the warbler, we became aware of a large, pale warbler crashing around in a bush which eventually came out and proved to be an OLIVE-TREE WARBLER. We enjoyed decent views of this sought-after species as it lumbered around before disappearing.
We wandered back and along the way had lovely views of a male EASTERN OLIVACEOUS WARBLER as it sang from the top of a bush.
The remainder of the day was enjoyed down along the coast and nearby valley, where our walk along the track found us three LITTLE RINGED PLOVERS on the beach whilst RED-RUMPED SWALLOWS, HOUSE MARTINS and BARN SWALLOWS came down to take mud from a small puddle.
Several PIED WHEATEARS showed well and we had brief views of a male EASTERN BLACK-EARED WHEATEAR which perched briefly on the cliff face. Desmarestii SHAGS flew low over the sea and SPANISH SPARROWS chirped from the cliff face.
GREAT REED WARBLERS were everywhere with at least 15 males singing along the river. A LITTLE BITTERN was a good find as it flew over the reed-beds several times and a little further along we watched a first-summer male MONTAGU'S HARRIER hunting over the rocky crags.
We scanned the cliff faces for the resident Eagle Owls but there was no sign until we heard the calls of a male EAGLE OWL! Despite a thorough search, we just couldn't find the bird. We were distracted by several pairs of GOLDEN ORIOLE, CUCKOO, HAWFINCH and TURTLE DOVE before we caught sight of a massive EAGLE OWL flying along the ridge. It briefly perched up before flying to a tree where although partially hidden, you could see its piercing orange eyes through the scope.
Absolutely delighted with this we walked back and then headed into town for a lovely meal, washed down with a celebratory beer!
Friday 13th May 2016
We met for breakfast at the slightly earlier time of 7.30am and afterwards headed out once again to the steppe grassland close-by. All the usual suspects were present such as CALANDRA LARKS, ISABELLINE WHEATEAR, SHORT-TOED LARKS, RED-BACKED SHRIKE and TAWNY PIPITS.
A short while later we arrived in the nearby town where we said our goodbyes to Dobry and welcomed Daniel who was our guide for the remainder of the tour.
With the weather forecasting a few heavy, thundery showers later in the day, we drove northwards to spend the day birding around Durankulak and Shabla lakes.
We parked close to the beach and a scan offshore produced BLACK-NECKED & GREAT CRESTED GREBES, CORMORANTS, a single BLACK-THROATED DIVER and a few MUTE SWANS. From the raised viewing area we spent some time checking out the reserve and the small pool held several FERRUGINOUS DUCKS, SQUACCO HERON and WOOD SANDPIPER plus PURPLE and GREY HERONS and lots of GREAT REED WARBLERS.
Several CUCKOO were seen, including a hepatic individual that was a rich brown in colour and then our attentions were diverted by a superb singing male SAVI'S WARBLER that perched up in full view. A flock of 17 WHISKERED TERNS croaked as they flew over and also seen were PYGMY CORMORANTS, four SPOONBILLS and a mixed flock of RED-FOOTED FALCONS and HOBBY.
Moving a little further south, we checked out a large area of reed-bed in the hope of Paddyfield Warbler but there was no sight or sound so we assumed that they had not arrived back in the country yet. A male LITTLE BITTERN gave a lovely fly past but a SQUACCO HERON that flew past did the decent thing and landed right in front of us giving amazing views!
A REED BUNTING was seen and was of the large-billed race reiserii and BEARDED TIT called but remained unseen. LITTLE RINGED PLOVERS were spotted on the beach as we walked back and then we headed off towards our lunch stop.
Taking a walk along the lake edge, we found some nice LESSER GREY SHRIKES plus a tantalising view of a woodpecker that may well have been Syrian but disappeared rather too quickly. There was compensation with a male BARRED WARBLER plus MARSH HARRIERS, COMMON TERNS, WILLOW WARBLER and both HOBBY and RED-FOOTED FALCON.
We then had a picnic lunch by the vehicles, whilst watching several TURTLE DOVES plus COMMON BUZZARD and then two lovely HONEY BUZZARDS drifted through right over our heads! Suitably refreshed, we tried a couple of areas further along and whilst driving along a track we became aware of a large raptor circling in the distance. A quick look through the bins and it was a GRIFFON VULTURE! We radioed the car in front and they thought we were joking as it is a very scarce bird in these parts. Once they got onto it, they realised it wasn't a joke and Daniel was very pleased.
As is often the case with birding, you just never know what you are going to see and as we drove along a few metres more, a bird with a wedge-shaped tail was seen flying over and it turned out to be a sub-adult EGYPTIAN VULTURE which is even rarer in the area, so to find two scarce birds in five minutes was very pleasing to say the least!
The weather had turned much hotter after a brief rain shower, as we walked along a ditch that held EUROPEAN POND TERRAPIN plus SPOTTED FLYCATCHER, SAVI'S WARBLER, BEE-EATERS and a pair of BLACK-HEADED WAGTAILS.
We then drove along the bumpy tracks to Shabla Lakes where we parked up and walked to the edge of a shallow lake. In the distance the sky was very black so we hoped it would pass by. A good scan of the lake produced a young male RED-CRESTED POCHARD plus LITTLE GULL, SLENDER-BILLED GULL, GARGANEY, SHELDUCK, POCHARD, COOT and GREENSHANK.
Eventually there was a few spots of rain but ahead of this rain shower were several male RED-FOOTED FALCONS plus HOBBY, ALPINE SWIFT and COMMON SWIFTS.
We returned to the vehicles just in time and as we drove back, the roads were very wet indeed. On the journey back we saw GREY PARTRIDGE, MARSH HARRIERS, lots of ROLLERS plus STONECHAT, NORTHERN WHEATEAR, TAWNY PIPIT and PHEASANT.
A brief stop was made at the steppe grassland that we visited earlier in the day and this yielded up to five STONE CURLEW including one quite close individual.
It was then off to the restaurant for our evening meal which everyone enjoyed and then we arrived back at the hotel to complete the bird list after a super day.
Saturday 14th May 2016
After breakfast we loaded up the vehicles, said our goodbyes to northeast Bulgaria and began our journey southwards. We made a short stop in a valley with steep cliffs either side of us and above them, the air was alive with HOUSE MARTINS, SAND MARTINS, SWALLOWS, RED-RUMPED SWALLOWS and both ALPINE and COMMON SWIFTS feeding on the many flying insects.
With careful scanning of the area, we found several KESTRELS and HOBBY but our main prize took a while to find, until a cracking male LEVANT SPARROWHAWK was spotted circling over a distant hill, then it flew along the ridge and out of view. Luckily it reappeared, flying up onto the cliff where we all got it briefly in the scopes. Although it flew off just a few seconds later we saw it again flying across the valley where we all had good views. A NIGHTINGALE was eventually seen well and a small party of BEE-EATERS were spotted on the other side of the valley.
A stop in the next town enabled us to connect with a SYRIAN WOODPECKER that was watched feeding from tree to tree along the main road.
Moving on, we drove a little way and stopped off at a small village where we headed straight to the woods. On arrival we could hear a male SEMI-COLLARED FLYCATCHER singing but it remained distant. A GREAT SPOTTED WOODPECKER was seen whilst a GREEN WOODPECKER called and then a LESSER SPOTTED WOODPECKER appeared right in front of us as it worked its way along a branch.
Other species here included our first ROBIN of the tour plus NUTHATCH and good views of a SHORT-TOED TREECREEPER. Eventually we got much better views of at least two male SEMI-COLLARED FLYCATCHERS as they visited nest holes above us.
We then took a walk around the woods and found more SEMI-COLLARED FLYCATCHERS plus LESSER WHITETHROAT, SONG THRUSH and two of the group saw what was almost certainly a BLACK WOODPECKER just a few minutes before Steve and Daniel heard one calling.
The walk back to the vehicles produced another species of woodpecker, this time a lovely male GREY-HEADED WOODPECKER that zoomed past us before landing on a tree where we had great views. Another few SEMI-COLLARED FLYCATCHERS were seen and showed really well for us, in fact, they were almost the most common bird. The most common was the CHAFFINCH which was seen and heard everywhere.
With our stomachs rumbling, we headed to a small river that was fed by a spring and we parked up in the shade as it was now around 25 degrees and there next to us was a pair of MIDDLE SPOTTED WOODPECKERS going in and out of a nest hole! The birds remained unconcerned as we had our lunch and we all got great views. A small party of HONEY BUZZARDS were circling over the woods and afterwards we took a walk where we heard BLACK WOODPECKER, LONG-TAILED TIT and a singing ICTERINE WARBLER.
There was still a long way to go on our journey down to Bourgas but we made several stops, one to watch a LESSER SPOTTED EAGLE over the road carrying what looked like a vole. Other goodies along the way included WOODCHAT SHRIKE, BEE-EATERS, singing WOODLARK, RAVEN and lots of COMMON BUZZARDS which by now had been nicknamed Buzzardy, Buzzardy things!
We arrived in Bourgas to find there had been a mix up with the hotel bookings but fortunately Daniel managed to sort it whilst we had dinner and we moved to a hotel nearby. After checking in some went off to unpack whilst others enjoyed a cold beer after what had been a really good day with many birding highlights!
Sunday 15th May 2016
The day dawned bright and sunny and we met for breakfast at the usual time of 7.30am and tucked into a lovely spread. Afterwards we drove the short distance to Pomorie where the morning was spent exploring the lake. An ICTERINE WARBLER eventually showed well in a small tamarisk as we wandered past and close to the shoreline were stunning LITTLE TERNS plus KENTISH PLOVER, PYGMY CORMORANT, AVOCET, BLACK-WINGED STILTS plus hundreds of SANDWICH TERNS. Several summer plumaged MEDITERRANEAN GULLS were seen amongst the SANDWICH TERN colony and a scan of the lake produced a couple of distant BLACK-NECKED GREBES.
We drove around to the other side of the lake and got distracted when at least 12 HONEY BUZZARDS were seen circling the road. There was a good variety of different plumaged birds that showed quite well. Turning off onto a dirt track, we slowly drove along until we found a small lagoon that was full of feeding WHISKERED TERNS plus singles of BLACK and WHITE-WINGED BLACK TERNS. A couple of GULL-BILLED TERNS flew past and what with LITTLE, SANDWICH and COMMON TERNS, we could see seven species of tern in a 360 degree sweep!
A drake GARGANEY was seen at the back of a pool along with a few LITTLE GULLS and a SLENDER-BILLED GULL. The reed-beds were literally alive with DARK SPREADWING DAMSELFLIES plus a few RED-VEINED DARTERS. Closer views of the pair of BLACK-NECKED GREBES were enjoyed plus we found GREAT WHITE EGRET, POCHARD and a group of flying WHITE PELICANS.
With the temperature warming up nicely, we moved to another part of the lake where we took a walk to check out some lagoons. BLACK-VEINED WHITE BUTTERFLIES flitted around and we found several MARSH FRITILLARIES close to the path. A EURASIAN BITTERN was seen by two of the group but it quickly disappeared.
The lagoons were pretty quiet except for the now usual PYGMY CORMORANTS, WHISKERED TERNS and KENTISH PLOVERS so we walked back and headed off for lunch in a restaurant where it was good to get out of the hot sun.
After some great food we tried some other saltpans, but they were rather quiet so we visited a nearby reservoir that held a pair of RUDDY SHELDUCKS plus GREAT CRESTED GREBE, GREEN WOODPECKER and lots of YELLOW-LEGGED GULLS.
Moving south, we tried a spot of agricultural fields where up to 20 COLLARED PRATINCOLES hawked insects high over the fields and gave some good views. We then took a walk along a track to an area of reeds and willows which produced a pair of PENDULINE TIT and moving to a slightly different location, we found a nest but were not sure whether it was an old one.
Our last site for the day was a large area of saltpans close to Burgas where our first scan yielded 10 SPOONBILL plus GARGANEY, OYSTERCATCHER, KENTISH PLOVER, BLACK-HEADED WAGTAIL, CURLEW and a distant SLENDER-BILLED GULL.
Another scan revealed a summer plumage SPOTTED REDSHANK and some distant CURLEW SANDPIPERS. We tried to get closer to some distant waders but just couldn't get close enough.
Back at the viewing area we were scanning once again when a dark bird flew past with a LITTLE EGRET and we shouted WESTERN REEF EGRET! This very scarce bird flew south and disappeared behind some reeds so we headed off in search of it. Amazingly, we reached the area to find it had disappeared!
We wandered back to the van and close by we could hear a SYRIAN WOODPECKER calling whilst a few NIGHT HERON flew over.
Back at the hotel it was great to have a shower after a day where the temperatures had topped 27 degrees. We met for a pre-dinner drink and had a fantastic evening meal. It was Steve C's birthday and another birder at the hotel sang Happy Birthday to him in Chinese and Spanish and he got a birthday kiss from her too!
It was then time to get some rest and prepare for another days birding the next day!
Monday 16th May 2016
Meeting for a slightly earlier breakfast of 7.00am, we tucked into another fabulous spread of meats, cheese, fruit, yoghurt, bread and copious amount of coffee!
Our first site of the day was to revisit the area of saltpans north of Burgas. On arrival the light was pretty good and by getting a different angle we found four LITTLE STINT, GREENSHANK, two RUFF plus KENTISH & LITTLE RINGED PLOVERS, AVOCET, BLACK-WINGED STILT and a single CURLEW SANDPIPER.
On the opposite side of the road the conditions were ideal, with low water and superb light. A quick scan revealed some small waders feeding in a concentrated bunch and several had stripy heads which meant they were BROAD-BILLED SANDPIPERS. Moving carefully along the very busy main road, we got into a better position and counted 20 BROAD-BILLED SANDPIPERS and around 50 CURLEW SANDPIPERS in varying plumages.
Also on the saltpan were more LITTLE STINTS plus RINGED PLOVER and GREY PLOVER. Back at the vans we spotted several ROLLERS on the wires plus some BEE-EATERS too.
We then drove south to Burgas Lake where we found lots of WHITE PELICANS plus around 10 DALMATIAN PELICANS out on the open water. Other species included quite a few NIGHT HERONS plus POCHARD, COOTS, YELLOW-LEGGED GULLS, GREAT CRESTED GREBES and two rather annoying canoeists moving backwards and forwards in front of us.
Moving even further south we stopped off at various points bordering a large lake where an adult WHITE-TAILED EAGLE circled before being found roosting in a tree close to a lagoon. On the lagoon were more NIGHT, SQUACCO, PURPLE and GREY HERONS and on the opposite side we found a few LESSER SPOTTED EAGLES displaying over the hills.
By now the temperature was rising so we checked out another part of the lake and this time viewed it from a high vantage point. A couple of FERRUGINOUS DUCKS were on the open water plus PYGMY CORMORANTS, YELLOW-LEGGED GULLS and a single WHITE PELICAN. In the distance a large flock of migrating WHITE STORKS were seen, plus a few more LESSER SPOTTED EAGLES.
Heading off for lunch, we stopped in the next village where a BLOTCHED SNAKE was seen in the road but unfortunately it had been killed even though it looked in perfect condition. Adding to our dead list was a GLASS LIZARD that had seen better days and was in a poor condition.
After an excellent but massive lunch, we moved to Poda Reserve which is managed by the BSPB (Bulgarian Society for the Protection of Birds) but behind us, as we stood on the viewing platform above the centre were lots of nasty black clouds and several rumbles of thunder. It wasn't long before it started raining so we retreated inside the centre. Several people bought souvenirs which helped out this excellent charity.
Eventually the rain stopped so we returned to the roof platform where we found four RED-CRESTED POCHARDS, POCHARD, COMMON TERNS, BLACK-WINGED STILTS plus the added bonus of a distant flock of BLACK TERNS with a few WHITE-WINGED TERNS thrown in for good measure. We really needed to be at the top end of the reserve where a mixed heron nesting colony was present, but we hadn’t walked very far when it started to rain so we popped into an ideally situated hide.
PYGMY and GREAT CORMORANTS were seen along with a few GREAT REED WARBLERS plus plenty of SANDWICH TERNS.
After a long walk we arrived at the hide and from here had good views of the colony with PURPLE, GREY, SQUACCO and NIGHT HERONS, PYGMY CORMORANTS, SPOONBILLS and best of all, a few GLOSSY IBIS.
With the weather looking decidedly dodgy in the distance we retreated and made it back just in time as a few rain drops started to fall. As we loaded up the van, a WHITE PELICAN was seen overhead against the backdrop of the sooty grey sky.
A brief stop was made on the return journey at an area of saltpans that we had visited the previous day, but apart from a group of 26 SPOONBILLS it was rather quiet bird-wise but not with thunder and lightning, as a large crack made us all jump out of our skins! The rain was torrential when we arrived back which made unloading the vehicles somewhat tricky, but we did have some time to have a hot shower before dinner.
The variety of evening meals were enjoyed and washed down with a cold beer, rounding off a good day!
Tuesday 17th May 2016
We awoke to find slightly cloudier conditions but it was dry and warm. After a hearty breakfast we loaded up the van and headed south through Burgas to the Strandja Natural Park. We were stopped by border police as it was close to the Turkish border but a few minutes later our first port of call was the vast Oriental Beech Forests in search of White-backed Woodpecker. A few SEMI-COLLARED FLYCATCHERS were heard as well as WREN and MARSH TIT.
We heard a distant woodpecker calling but it turned out to be a GREAT SPOTTED and with it being quiet in the woods, we took a walk down the road where eventual we heard a couple of WHITE-BACKED WOODPECKERS calling, but try as we might to coax them up the slope, they didn't come.
By now it was getting on for lunch time so we headed into a nearby village to eat our packed lunch at a small cafe where we tried to have a coffee. Try was the word because as soon as we got out of the vehicles we were waylaid. We headed to a small park where a cracking male COMMON REDSTART of the race samamiscus was seen singing and showing well. It was joined by a female and then another male appeared on a roof and started singing too.
We checked out a small stream running through the village and it held lots of MARSH FROGS plus COMMON TOAD and both GREY and WHITE WAGTAILS. The highlight was a stunning male LITTLE BITTERN that just sat in an alarm pose close-by whilst MARSH FROGS hopped around it. It was a real joy to see this bird well so we left it in peace and got our coffee.
As was the norm during the tour, as soon as we got comfortable, someone spotted something, and it was no exception today with a GOLDEN EAGLE circling over with a flock of HONEY BUZZARDS, then an adult BLACK STORK was seen over the woodland, then a few LESSER SPOTTED EAGLES were seen!
After lunch we went back to another area of woodland where we once again heard WHITE-BACKED WOODPECKER but it didn't show, although we did have some compensation with a NORTHERN WHITE-BREASTED HEDGEHOG close to the road.
It was now time to head back and with good roads we made good time, until about 20km short of Burgas a small bird was seen perched close to the road which turned out to be one of a lovely family party of SOMBRE TITS. A LESSER SPOTTED EAGLE showed fantastically as did RED-BACKED SHRIKE and a STEPPE BUZZARD which flew past.
Over the road we could hear a song that sounded reminiscent of Great Reed Warbler but on seeing the bird it was an OLIVE-TREE WARBLER! We obtained fantastic views of this bird making up for our disappointing sighting on a previous day. A male CIRL BUNTING sang from the top of a tree and a couple of RAVENS flew past.
We headed straight to our hotel after making a brief stop for fuel and we arrived on time, heading straight to our rooms to shower before meeting for a drink and another fantastic meal.
Wednesday 18th May 2016
With a long day ahead of us, we opted for an early breakfast and after saying our goodbyes to the hotel staff we went straight to the saltpans on the edge of Burgas. A few SPOONBILLS fed in the deeper water and four WHITE PELICANS were seen on the northern pans. KENTISH PLOVER, SPOTTED REDSHANK and lots of AVOCETS were seen plus a GLOSSY IBIS flew south and a CUCKOO gave a good flyby view. Daniel found a singing MARSH WARBLER in the bushes but despite searching, it wasn't seen.
We headed off towards the Eastern Rhodope Mountains with several stops along the way, the first at an area of scattered Oaks which was alive with birdsong. TREE PIPIT, ORTOLAN BUNTING, YELLOWHAMMER and TURTLE DOVE sang whilst a LESSER SPOTTED WOODPECKER flew across the road.
A few kilometres on the first of many BLACK KITES drifted along close to the road and BLACK-HEADED BUNTINGS became very plentiful. A short while later we pulled off the road close to a slow-moving river and the grassland was alive with butterflies that included QUEEN OF SPAIN and GLANVILLE FRITILLARIES. A few dragonflies were noted adjacent to the river of which BANDED and BEAUTIFUL DEMOISELLES were the most numerous plus singles of BROAD-BODIED CHASER and ODALISQUE.
A super SEMI-COLLARED FLYCATCHER sang from a dead tree but despite a good search for Lesser Spotted Woodpecker at a nesting site we had no luck, so assumed they had fledged in the last week. A KINGFISHER zipped along the river and a CIRL BUNTING was seen perched up in the tall trees.
Moving on, we drove along the winding roads, climbing slowly up through the hills. Several WOODCHAT SHRIKES were seen including some smart looking males. With the vehicle windows open we could hear lots of birdsong and an unusual burst of song created an unscheduled stop along a narrow road. Firstly there were a lovely pair of WOODLARK in the road ahead, but much better was the EASTERN ORPHEAN WARBLER that sang and displayed around us and showed well.
A few KILOMETRES along the road we pulled off into what seemed like a derelict farmyard, but this one had another group of birders in! We were soon watching up to 10 LESSER KESTRELS flying around as part of a reintroduction programme.
Whilst watching these super birds, our attentions were drawn to a male EASTERN IMPERIAL EAGLE displaying over the hill. Eventually it came much closer and flew right over us. This site was one of the many during the tour where you just didn't know where to watch as there were GOLDEN ORIOLE, BEE-EATERS and a surprise find of around 20 ROSE-COLOURED STARLINGS which flew through.
After learning about the superb work trying to save the LESSER KESTREL we drove slowly out of the village but came to an abrupt halt when some ROSE-COLOURED STARLINGS were seen in the road! With some careful manoeuvring of the vehicles we had superb views of these birds that had only been first recorded for the year in Bulgaria a few days before.
Our stomachs were rumbling by the time we got to a reservoir and once again, our lunch was interrupted by a pair of EASTERN IMPERIAL EAGLES flying over plus BLACK KITE, LESSER SPOTTED EAGLE and a GOSHAWK! A male BLACK-HEADED BUNTING put on a good show for us as he sang in bushes very close-by.
With a long drive still to do, we started off again but didn't get far when a HORNED VIPER was seen crossing the road. We stopped in a rocky gorge. CIRL BUNTINGS, COMMON BUZZARDS were seen but our main target was seen well when a male MASKED SHRIKE ousted a singing male ORTOLAN BUNTING from a tree.
With feeling a little weary, a quick coffee stop was made before we were on our way. Our route took us through an area of vineyards where RED-BACKED SHRIKES and both CORN and BLACK-HEADED BUNTINGS were numerous. A perched LONG-LEGGED BUZZARD showed well before flying off.
We had barely begun our climb into the mountains when a smart SHORT-TOED EAGLE was seen above the pine forests. Another stop at a spectacular viewpoint produced up to six GRIFFON VULTURES circling above us, soon to be replaced by four BLACK STORKS that gave great views. New birds for the tour included many CRAG MARTINS hawking above us plus several male BLUE ROCK THRUSH and a singing male ROCK BUNTING. Other species present were EASTERN BLACK-EARED WHEATEAR and RED-RUMPED SWALLOW.
With a drive of around 50 kilometres still to do, we headed straight to our hotel where after checking in, we went straight down for our evening meal.
Afterwards we took a stroll into the local park where we heard our first SCOP'S OWL singing. With careful searching we located this diminutive bird on a bare branch and watched it for a while before it flew off which made a great end to an action packed day!
Thursday 19th May 2016
After a good night’s sleep, we had breakfast at 7.00am and headed out on a cool, bright morning. The usual suspects of RED-BACKED SHRIKES, BLACK-HEADED BUNTINGS, TURTLE DOVES, WHITE STORKS and CORN BUNTINGS were seen as we travelled along.
We took a minor road off into the hills and made our first stop close to a small village. The local cows were wandering around and the sound of the cowbells echoed through the countryside. After a few minutes searching, we found a superb male SARDINIAN WARBLER singing from scrub and we all got good views as it perched in the tops of bushes.
Moving onwards, we parked up once again in the shade and began a walk up the hill. On the north side of the valley was a vulture feeding station and feeding on a cow carcass were around 70 GRIFFON VULTURES plus around five EGYPTIAN VULTURES. A RED FOX tried to muscle in on the kill but was sent packing by the Griffons!
In the Oak trees we could hear a warbler singing and eventually we had excellent views of a male EASTERN SUBALPINE WARBLER as it performed its song flight and sat on top of the nearby trees. A couple of SOMBRE TITS were seen briefly and a small herd of FALLOW DEER were present on the other side of the ridge.
A pale-phase BOOTED EAGLE drifted over albeit briefly and disappeared into the sun and a few RAVENS were seen and heard.
Out next site was a large area of cliffs where we had distant views of a pair of WESTERN ROCK NUTHATCHES going in and out of a nest. Other distractions here included CRAG MARTINS, several HONEY BUZZARDS including a wing-clapping male, HOOPOE and the stunning insect Nemoptera sinuata.
With our stomachs rumbling we drove to a town for lunch to find that the restaurant was busy, so we ordered food and headed off into the foothills whilst it was being prepared.
The sheltered conditions were perfect for butterflies which included ILEX HAIRSTREAK, GREEN-UNDERSIDE BLUE and COMMON GLIDER.
Daniel got a phone call to say that the food was ready so we retraced our steps back to the cars. On the way back we could hear plenty of SHORT-TOED TREECREEPERS plus ROBIN, SONG THRUSH and BLACKBIRD.
Lunch went down very well and it was good to be in the shade for a break. Afterwards we decided to head back towards our base and try a valley to look for Chukar.
Along the way we made several stops, the first produced a pair of PEREGRINE FALCONS above our heads, plus a distant GOLDEN EAGLE and most of the group managed to get on a EASTERN BONELLI'S WARBLER that landed in an Oak tree briefly.
Further along the road we pulled over as a super male WOODCHAT SHRIKE perched up on the fence whilst overhead were a pair of BOOTED EAGLES which drifted off, only to be replaced by a close SHORT-TOED EAGLE! It hovered right in front of us before flying off along the road.
Reaching our destination, we parked so we could scan the rocky hillsides. GOLDEN ORIOLES flew past and several LESSER GREY SHRIKES were seen, whilst overhead we found a family party of COMMON KESTRELS plus a HOBBY.
With patience, we eventually found two displaying CHUKAR on the hillside and it was great to watch these two males chasing around with necks outstretched.
It was then time to head back and along the way we saw a GREAT EGRET feeding in the river. After time for a shower, we met for dinner in the busy restaurant before getting a good night’s rest.
Friday 20th May 2016
The day was once again bright and sunny although a little chilly in the shade. We were soon on our way towards the Western Rhodope Mountains. A facilities stop produced a NORTHERN TREECREEPER plus the added bonus of a super BLACK WOODPECKER that flew over our heads. Delighted by this, we carried on westwards and once again stopped off in a mountain clearing that produced several singing FIRECREST, DUNNOCK plus LARGE WALL BROWN and QUEEN OF SPAIN FRITILLARY.
Another stop had been planned but due to roadworks we couldn't reach the site so we carried on towards Trigrad. After around 40 minutes, we stopped off alongside a river where we found our first DIPPER of the tour. GREY and WHITE WAGTAILS fed alongside the river and a BLACK REDSTART was seen briefly.
We eventually reached the famous Trigrad Gorge and parked up just before the tunnel. Our first priority was lunch which we tucked into whilst scanning the cliffs. A family party of PEREGRINE FALCONS were seen overhead and lots of CRAG MARTINS hawked up and down the valley. We located the endemic plant Haberlea rhodopensis growing on the cliffs and an orchid that was identified as a MILITARY ORCHID.
Despite a very thorough search of the cliffs we failed to find a Wallcreeper, so we moved position to the southern end of the gorge. After a coffee we continued scanning, but with no luck so we opted to visit an area above the valley.
We walked along a rough track where a cracking male ROCK BUNTING perched in a bush and further on a male SERIN sang from the tops of the pines. Unfortunately rain had started to fall and quite heavily so we retreated back to the vehicles. With it still raining, we headed straight to the hotel where some of the group headed out. Several SERIN and CRAG MARTINS were seen around our excellent hotel.
After some time relaxing, we met in the bar for a pre-dinner drink before our evening meal.
Saturday 20th May 2016
Most of the group met at 7.00am for a pre-breakfast walk around the area which produced up to five DIPPER plus SERINS, BLACK REDSTARTS, ROCK BUNTING, GREY WAGTAILS and a super FIRE SALAMANDER.
Breakfast was superb with a huge variety on offer which could have kept us there for a long time! We left Trigrad and stopped off in the gorge for one last time but unfortunately it was raining steadily which made viewing tricky. CRAG MARTINS zoomed backwards and forwards plus the family of PEREGRINES were seen briefly too.
With a long drive ahead of us, we carried on with it raining pretty much all the time. A stop off alongside a river produced a BLACK STORK plus COMMON KESTREL whilst we stretched our legs.
Another stop was made an hour later in an area of farmland where a LESSER SPOTTED EAGLE drifted over the fields and both COMMON BUZZARD and MARSH HARRIERS fed despite the rain.
Further along the road we found BEE-EATERS, ISABELLINE WHEATEAR and both BLACK-HEADED and CORN BUNTINGS before heading up to a nearby quarry.
With the rain still falling we birded from the vehicles and found BLACK-HEADED WAGTAILS, CALANDRA LARKS, CRESTED LARKS and NORTHERN WHEATEAR whilst up to four QUAIL called from the barley fields.
On leaving the quarry we had good views of a ROLLER perched on a post before carrying on our journey towards Sofia. The traffic wasn't too bad as we traversed the ring road and were soon west of the city on the main road to Serbia.
Our last stop of the day was a marsh close to the town of Dragoman which produced GREAT WHITE EGRET, LITTLE BITTERN, PURPLE HERON, GREAT REED WARBLERS, MARSH HARRIERS, FERRUGINOUS DUCKS and GREAT CRESTED GREBES.
A walk was taken along the track and in an area of bushes a pair of MARSH WARBLERS were seen and heard and a SEDGE WARBLER was a new addition to the list.
With the rain falling once again, we headed to our hotel for the night and after checking in, we did the bird list over a cold beer before having our evening meal.
Sunday 21st May 2016
Our last morning in Bulgaria started with a 7.00am breakfast and with much better weather, we loaded up and headed back towards Sofia.
The traffic was light as we drove around the ring-road and started climbing up on the cobbled streets that led to Vitosha Mountain. It was a chilly 7.5 degrees up at the ski station and our first birds were three NUTCRACKERS that flew over and landed in the tops of the pines. We had good scope views of these super birds before they flew off into the woods.
As we wandered along the trail we found a family party of GREY WAGTAILS feeding in a small stream and both MISTLE and SONG THRUSHES were seen on the open slopes as was a male BLACKBIRD that was chased off by a male RING OUZEL!
Moving further along, a WILLOW TIT called from the pines and landed briefly before flying to some willows where it gave good views. A TREE PIPIT displayed on the upper slopes and several more NUTCRACKERS flew over with several landing in trees giving good scope views.
The walk back to the vehicles produced more RING OUZELS, FIRECREST, GOLDCRESTS, GREY WAGTAILS, BLACK REDSTARTS and the common by now NUTCRACKER. We enjoyed a coffee to warm up before heading back to the carpark.
With some time in hand before driving to airport, we stopped off a little further down the mountain where we soon came across a few PALLID SWIFTS flying along with a couple of HOUSE MARTINS.
With some reluctance, it was time to go to the airport which was very smooth ride and after checking in, we had time to relax before catching our three hour flight home.
We landed on time at Luton and once off the plane it only took around 8 minutes to go through passport control which was a record time. We did however, have to wait for our luggage to appear!
We said our goodbyes after what had been a splendid tour, with so many wildlife highlights, lots of good laughs, great food and all with a super group of people!