This tour was a privately organized one for the Inverness Branch of the Scottish Ornithological Society at the third time of asking because of the pandemic. The total duration of the tour was dominated by a low weather system stuck over most of the Balkan Peninsula which had a severe effect on the northward migration of summer birds. Despite all of this we managed to record just below 200 species including close views of the spectacular Wallcreeper at close range. In addition to this the Black Sea was notable for huge build ups of Black-throated Diver and Black-necked Grebes.
I am sure the following report will bring back memories of an excellent tour despite the cold weather. My thanks also go out to Vasco for driving us around safely and Assen for his excellent knowledge and contacts for Bulgarian birds.
April 15th: London, Sofia, Sinitovo, Trigrad
Daily 31 New 31 Running 31
Weather: Sunny with warm SE winds 24c although cooler at Trigrad
The group met up at Heathrow Terminal 5 for the flight to Sofia. Although the flight was delayed we arrived in Sofia on time and quickly passed through customs, passport and covid control. Petar and Assen were waiting for us in a pleasant and warm spring day. In the car park we found House and Eurasian Tree Sparrows and Common Starlings. Our route took us towards Plovdiv with sightings of Common and Long-legged Buzzards, Northern Raven and Barn Swallow. A stop at a service station added a singing Common Whitethroat, European Greenfinch, European Goldfinch and a single Common Woodpigeon. Shortly afterwards we turned south towards Greece with sightings of Little Egret, and Western Jackdaw. The main interest was the old quarry workings near Sinitovo where visible migration was going on with sightings of Common Buzzard, Common Kestrel, Western Marsh Harrier and a Black Stork. Careful searching of the quarry added Black-eared Wheatears, Crested and Calandra Larks, Corn Bunting and a few Common Swifts heading north. The remainder of the day was spent travelling through spectacular scenery of mountains, forest and reservoirs. The final leg to Trigrad was dramatic with road narrowing and winding its way through a narrow gorge where a White-throated Dipper was noted. The lodge was literally the last building at the end of the road where recently arrived Eurasian Crag and House Martins were prospecting for nest sites. A long but enjoyable day finished with dinner and local red wines.
April 16th: Trigrad
Daily 46 New 34 Running 65
Weather: Overcast all day with light SW winds 2c/16c
I arranged a pre-breakfast walk around the hotel property and nearby fields at 0730 hours. In the hotel gardens several pairs of Black Redstarts, Mistle Thrush, Common Blackbird, Great, Coal and European Blue Tits and brief views of a European Serin. In the first field a Rock Bunting was located feeding in the open which is unusual for this species. Other species seen included Common Chiffchaff, Common Chaffinch, White and Grey Wagtails and the two martin species. Back for breakfast with a surprise for some as a female Northern Goshawk was hunting the local Rock Doves. It was time to head down the valley and searching the rock faces and adjacent trees and scrub. Pallid and Alpine Swifts were seen before parking up and walking down the road. Luck was with us as up to three Wallcreepers were seen in flight and feeding very close to us on the cliff face and lichen covered shrubs, you could not get better views of this scarce and difficult mountain species. In the same spot a calling Tawny Owl and Black Woodpecker with the latter showing well later in the day. On to the next stop with a walk along the fast-flowing river which had Grey Wagtail and White-throated Dippers. Interesting woodland birds were located which included Firecrest, Goldcrest, Eurasian Treecreeper and briefly a pair of Marsh Tits. In addition to this we heard Red Crossbill and before our lunch stop a calling Grey-headed Woodpecker. Lunch taken and afterwards a walk above the valley on a level track which proved to be good for Eurasian Sparrowhawk, Black Woodpecker feeding on a dead tree (good but distant views), Dunnock, European Crested Tit, European Robin and a brief view of Red-rumped Swallows. Back towards the hotel and towards the border with Greece an open area of fields and meadows. Similar birds to the morning with the addition of two Spotted Nutcrackers which Hugh managed to see before they flew into the forest. An amazing day for birds which was high in quality. Tomorrow we head east across the Rhodope Mountains to Krumnovgrad our next base.
April 17th: Trigrad, Kardzali, Krumovgrad
Daily 43 New 13 Running 78
Weather: Rain with mist at lower levels on a NE wind 2c/8c
As dawn broke the skies were full of rain clouds which were to be with us all day long. This was disappointing for the time of year but you cannot change the weather!! The usual birds were around the hotel and valley apart from a pair of Mallards which looked out of place in a mountain stream and two March Tits lower down the road. Our journey was across the Rhodope Mountain range from west to east and roughly following the border with Greece and Turkey. A stop was made for lunch in an area of forest which was shrouded in mist. Several species were heard including Black and Grey-headed Woodpeckers, Common Cuckoo and a Black Stork flying along a river bottom. A stop in the town of Kardzali provided us with the best birding of the day. In some ways this was a controversial site in the middle of town but eventually the environmental aspect prevailed. From an elevated position we could look down on Barn and Red-rumped Swallows, Sand, House and Eurasian Crag Martins. In the trees close views of nesting Pygmy Cormorant, Little Egret and Black-crowned Night Herons. Other species present included Common Coot, Common Moorhen and Yellow-legged Gulls perched on rusting lamp posts. In the bushes and reedbeds observations of migrant Sedge Warbler, Blackcap and Whinchat and the distinctive song of Savi’s Warbler. The weather started to get worse so we headed to Krumovgrad our base for the next two nights.
April 18th: Krumovgrad, Potochnitza, Studen Kladenets, Dolna Kula
Daily 53 New 17 Running 95
Weather: Rather cold and overcast with rain showers on a NW wind 2c/6c
Another cool and wet day lay ahead of us as we arrived in the near deserted village of Potochnitza. The weather was having an effect on vultures visiting the feeding centre as it was eerily quiet with nothing present at all. We decided to head back to the village and walk down the road where we located a female Collared Flycatcher, European Green Woodpecker and a distant singing Woodlark. The main road had good numbers of White Storks sitting on nests or nearby telegraph poles. Next stop was the village of Studen Kladenets where the group went on a walk through the fields with bushes and views towards the cliffs. On the cliffs we located Griffon Vulture, Black-eared Wheatear and a pair of Blue Rock Thrush. In the bushes Cirl Buntings were particularly numerous along with Great Tits and eventually at least four Sombre Tits. The weather was no better when lunch was taken by the power station with White-throated Dipper and Grey Wagtails on the river itself and Hawfinch and Long-tailed Tits in the trees. After lunch we crossed the dam and viewed a pair of Egyptian Vultures a scarce and declining species of Europe. Later in the afternoon a visit to Dolna Kula which was productive for Eurasian Hoopoe, Black Stork, Eurasian Hobby, Spotted Flycatcher and calling Grey-headed Woodpeckers. The weather worsened again so we headed back to base.
Mammals: Fallow Deer
April 19th: Krumovgrad, Madzarovo, Topolovgrad, Burgas, Pomerie
Daily 62 New 15 Running 110
Weather: Mixed with sleet at higher elevations plus frequent rain showers on a NW wind 1c/12c
Today we headed in a NE direction towards Burgas and close to the border with Greece and Turkey. Our journey retraced a little of yesterday morning with added bonus of a Little Owl sitting on an abandoned house. Madzarovo was the first birding stop a dramatic area of cliffs and rivers plus light woodland in the valley bottoms. On arrival we quickly located the first Woodchat Shrike of the tour whilst the woodland attracted Hawfinch, Blackcap, Eurasian Jay, Long-tailed Tits and late migrants which included Eurasian Siskins. The best bird was a singing Eastern Subalpine Warbler by the roadside. In the surrounding area calling Rock Nuthatch and Ortolan Bunting with neither being seen which was rather frustrating. Our journey took us towards the town of Topolovgrad with several stops en route with the best being a group of migrant Lesser Spotted Eagles in flight and on the ground searching for lizards. Also present were Common Kestrel, Common Cuckoo and a few Calandra and Eurasian Skylarks. On arrival in Topolovgrad the steppe like habitat attracted a female Montagu’s Harrier and several Isabelline Wheatears the latter perching in a rather upright position on low bushes. Further along the road a stop was made for Eastern Imperial Eagle without success on this occasion. In the bushes we found a male Common Stonechat and singing Common Whitethroats. It was time to head towards Burgas and its wide range of habitats with a bonus of over one hundred Red-footed Falcons perched on telegraph wires. In Burgas we headed north to Pomerie located on the Black Sea our base for two nights.
Mammals: Souslik, Red Squirrel
April 20th: Pomerie, Burgas including Lake Vaya, Lake Mandra, Saltpans, Pomerie Saltpans
Daily 89 New 48 Running 158
Weather: Cloudy and rain in the afternoon on a NE/E wind 7c/12c
This morning we had a brief respite from the low system which is affecting the Balkan Peninsula. On the way to Lake Vaya groups of Greater Flamingoes were seen outside Burgas. The first major birding stop was Lake Vaya a brackish habitat bordered by reedbeds and a few isolated nesting platforms made of concrete. The area was a hive of activity with open water areas attracting Great and Pygmy Cormorants, Great Crested Grebes, Great White Pelican, Common Coot, Mallard, Garganey, Common Pochard and Common Shelduck. More notable were good numbers of Common, Little, Whiskered, Black and White-winged Terns and groups of migrating Little Gulls. In the reedbeds we encountered Grey Heron, Little Egret, European Reed and Savi’s Warblers, Semi-collared Flycatcher and Blackcap. After passing through Burgas an exploration of Lake Mandra was made beyond the dam area. In the open fields telegraph wires attracted Red-footed Falcons and Common Kestrel, whilst in the skies above great views of a pale phase Booted Eagle and another two Lesser Spotted Eagles. In a quieter sector of the lake a pair of Ferruginous Ducks and singing Cetti’s and Eastern Olivaceous Warblers. A walk along the road which dissects the lake and marsh added Little Grebe and Purple Heron. In the next village we located a party of Spanish Sparrows and a visible migration of Great White Pelicans and White Storks. In an oil seed rape field singing Western Yellow Wagtail and migrant Red-throated Pipit. It was time for lunch on the shores of the Black Sea. After lunch a visit to the saltpans of Burgas before an incoming cold front arrived. A selection of waders included Ruff, Dunlin, Little Stint, Curlew and Terek Sandpipers, Common Ringed, Kentish and Grey Plovers, Spotted Redshank and the commoner ducks which included a drake Northern Pintail. The rain arrived and temperature dropped as we arrived at the old salt workings in Pomerie. The group sheltered from the rain and located Pied Avocet, Common Greenshank, Marsh Sandpiper, Black-winged Stilt, Mediterranean Gull and a drake Red-breasted Merganser. On the wires an adult male Red-footed Falcon was a fitting end to a great days birding in Bulgaria.
April 21st: Pomerie, Poray Reservoir, Diulino Pass, Goritsa, Kamisha, Kavarna
Daily 76 New 10 Running 168
Weather: Sunny and bright with a cool S wind 7c/13c
Today the group travelled north towards Varna the third largest city in Bulgaria. Our first birding stop was Poray Reservoir where the fields were attracting flocks of Red-footed Falcons and large numbers of Common Swifts. A walk down an old road towards the reservoir which was bordered by bushes added Willow Warbler, Common Whitethroat and Tree Pipit. On the lake we located fishing Whiskered and Black Terns, Common and Ruddy Shelducks, a juvenile White-tailed Eagle and on the muddy edges Wood and Common Sandpipers and Common Greenshank. In the grass fields we heard a singing Common Quail. The road passes through oak woodlands along the Diulino Pass which is a noted migration route. High above us in the skies we witnessed a visible migration of Common (Steppe) Buzzards, Lesser Spotted Eagles and a handful of White Storks. In the oaks views of an Eastern Bonnelli’s Warbler. Further along the road a Short-toed Snake Eagle showed well and a Eurasian Wryneck called and showed in a meadow dotted with mature trees. Lunch was taken in Goritsa and followed by a visit into the mature deciduous forest where we watched Middle Spotted Woodpeckers and short-toed Treecreepers plus a fly-by female Northern Goshawk. A visit to Kamisha produced similar birds apart from a pair of Song Thrush on the road and more views of woodpeckers. Time was getting on a bit as we passed through Varna and onto Kavarna our next base in Bulgaria.
April 22nd: Kavarna, Durankulak, Shabla Lakes, Cape Kaliakra
Daily 96 New 18 Running 186
Weather: Overcast with a cool SE wind 6c/12c
The low weather system which has covered most of SE Europe continued today with overcast skies and a cool wind. The first birding area was Durankulak a large marsh area adjacent to the Black Sea and on the border with Romania. En route the commoner species of the area and on arrival an inspection of the Black Sea and the campground. A scan of the sea produced Black-throated and Red-throated Divers, Black-necked Grebes, Yelkouan Shearwaters and on the beach a single Whooper Swan, Common Ringed and Little Ringed Plovers and Great Cormorants. A walk down the entrance road had a singing Eastern Bonelli’s Warbler, Whinchat, Common Whitethroat and the strange sight of a Purple Heron walking across the road. It was time to explore the southern end of the reed-bed which was reached by passing an old Soviet style farm from years gone by. The bushes were good for migrants with male Collared and Semi-collared Flycatchers and Common Stonechat being of note. At the end of the track a defunct fish farm area was being slowly overgrown by natural vegetation. In the marsh area recent cutting and burning of the reeds attracted Squacco Heron, Western Marsh Harriers (many), an adult White-tailed Eagle, calling Water Rails, Wood Sandpiper and Common Snipe the latter quickly dropping into cover. Next stop was at Shabla Lakes which was suffering from high water levels. The open waters attracted Northern Shoveler, Gadwall, Garganey, Common Teal, Mallard and Common Shelduck. In the few muddy areas at least three Marsh Sandpipers, Black-winged Stilt and a lone White Stork. A walk towards the beach had Sandwich Terns offshore. Lunch was taken by the old lighthouse with the fences attracting the eastern race of Common Redstart. En route to Cape Kaliakra the steppe area had a pair of Hen Harriers, Calandra Lark and on offshore rocks the local race of European Shag. It was time to visit the cape itself which has several areas of stonewalls and steep cliffs. The car park area had Northern and Pied Wheatears and territorial Corn Buntings. Offshore large rafts of Black-necked Grebe, Black-throated Divers and hundreds of Yelkouan Shearwaters. The cliffs also lured Alpine and Common Swifts and in the scrub a migrant Lesser Whitethroat. A short visit to a valley with marshes and cliffs added nothing of note although a revisit in the morning may be profitable for birdlife as the weather may improve.
Mammals: Red Fox
April 23rd: Kavarna, Lake Srebana, Vetren
Daily 84 New 12 Running 198
Weather: Sunny with S winds 21c
At last a change in the weather as the group headed NW to the village of Vetren which is close to the Danube and border with Romania. Before heading off a visit to the steppe habitats near Kavarna where we located Eurasian Thick-knee, Greater Short-toed, Eurasian, Crested and Calandra Larks. The journey was uneventful with a stop at Dobric for drinks and supplies and brief views of a Syrian Woodpecker perched in a dead tree. On arrival at Lake Srebana an elevated viewpoint enabled us to observe the scarce Dalmatian Pelican and hawking Eurasian Hobby’s. A walk along the reed edge was productive for Little Bittern, Greylag Goose, Ruddy Shelduck, Ferruginous Duck and a showy Eurasian Penduline Tit. Lunch was taken and afterwards a visit to another area of Lake Srebana. In the open areas of water Garganey, Gadwall, Red-crested Pochard and on nesting platforms several more pelicans. A walk along a trail had drumming Lesser Spotted Woodpecker and brief views of a vocal Grey-headed Woodpecker. At the far viewing point Glossy Ibis, Eurasian Spoonbill, Northern Lapwing and a pair of White-tailed Eagles. In the reeds we could hear the songs of Great Reed and Savi’s Warblers. It was time to head towards Vetren and Pelican Lodge which is operated by my old friend Dora who was present to greet us.
Great Reed Warbler
April 24th/25th: Vetren, Molav Preslavets, Kalimok, Gaboro, Sofia
Daily 80 New 0 Final 198
Weather: Warm and sunny on a SE wind 12c/27c
Birds in around the lodge garden included Syrian and Lesser Spotted Woodpeckers, Eurasian Wryneck and a calling Eurasian Hoopoe. After consuming breakfast we travelled westwards and adjacent to the Danube where we made a visit to Molav Prelavets. This large, reed lined lake is unusual along the Danube attracting Dalmatian Pelican, Black-crowned Night Heron, European Green and Grey-headed Woodpeckers, Eurasian Golden Oriole, and in the reedbeds close views of Savi’s and Sedge Warblers. Raptors were also round which included Black Kite, Eurasian Hobby and Western Marsh Harrier. Further west the final birding stop was at Kalimok an old fishpond complex from the communist area in Bulgaria (ended 1989). The shrubs and willows were an attraction to migrant passerines as we added Spotted, Collared and Semi-collared Flycatchers, Common and Lesser Whitethroats, Eastern Bonelli’s Warblers and nest building European Penduline Tits to the list. The afternoon was spent travelling to Gaboro a picturesque town surrounded by low mountains. A pleasant evening meal in a tavern followed and the next day back to Sofia where the tour concluded.
Mammals: Red Deer