BULGARIA - the Black Sea Coast
19 - 26 September 2005

Guides: David Kent (GGW) and Pavel Simeonov (Branta-Tours)

Day 1; Mon. 19 September Following a slightly late rendezvous (heavy traffic) at London Heathrow, Terminal 1, we enjoyed unlimited complimentary T/coffee, biscuits or whatever else one fancied in the Service air executive lounge, before boarding our aircraft for the scheduled 08:55 flight to Sofia with British Airways, which finally lifted off at about 09:15. Touching down at Sofia (14:20) having endured a turbulent descent, we met with a warm temperature comparable to that at LHR, though it was somewhat close and humid. Magpies - first birds of the tour - were duly noted by the runway. Our guide Pavel Simeonov, Director of Branta-Tours Birdwatching Company, linked up with us in the arrivals hall and, after collecting our tickets for the flight back from Varna, we were on the road and heading for Pomorie by 15:00.
Common Buzzards, Kestrels, Yellow-legged Gulls, Rooks and Starlings were among the handful of birds seen as we headed east into afforested mountains. Entering the mountain pass between Sredna Gora and Stara Planina (Balkan Range) a detour was made to the small township of Koprivschtitza, an attractive heritage site renowned for its history of resistance to Turkish occupation. Here we took T/coffee outside a cafe while Crag Martins and a Red-rumped Swallow wheeled about the sky above. Grey Wagtails and a Dipper were seen on the small river cutting through the town centre, while Great and Blue Tits, one or two Willow Warblers, House Sparrows, Chaffinches and a handsome male Black Redstart were observed in the immediate surroundings.
Soon after rejoining the main trunk route an immature Golden Eagle appeared above a wooded hillside to our left. Onwards travel took us through Rozino and into the Valley of the Roses, a region where roses were extensively cultivated for the production of expensive rose oil. We pulled off to watch a group of five Hobbies hawking insects low over a small hamlet, soon afterwards seeing a flight of eight Black Storks. Wood Pigeons and Hooded Crows on electricity cables, plus three more Black Storks, were the last birds noted during the failing late evening light at about 19:30.
We encountered a small amount of rain before reaching Hotel Byalata Kashta (21:40), our base for the next three nights in Pomorie. The journey had remained overcast and rather grey for the most part. A late but tasty meal awaited us, which we ate while thunder rumbled all around.

Day 2; Tue. 20 September A Black Sea vista greeted on awakening, viewed from the balconies to our rooms. A couple of Black-necked Grebes showed offshore, the first of many Red-breasted Flycatchers appeared in a nearby tree, while Swallows, House Martins and a few Swifts milled about overhead. Breakfast at 09:00 was followed by departure at 10:00, the day starting cool, windy and overcast with forecast of rain.
The Salinas (salt pans) by Pomorie were first on the agenda, where a modest collection of waders included Lapwings, Ruffs and a Ringed Plover at our first stop. A second unit of salinas produced great numbers of Shelducks, distant Avocets, and a few Little Gulls plus perched Red-rumped Swallow. At a third we encountered a sizeable group of Slender-billed Gulls - some still with pink-blushed breasts - also Redshanks. During a brief visit to the Black Sea shore the discovery of dead gulls (including Slender-billed Gulls) was a depressing find - the result of indiscriminate and meaningless shooting in the name of sport.
Late morning we arrived at Lake Atanasovo, a coastal lagoon immediately to the north of Burgas, where raptor migration was a main focus. Roofed bird-ringing tables on the perimeter dyke served as an excellent lunch facility 12:30). Here we joined Gerold Dobler of Swarovski Optik and Bill Clark, a raptor specialist from Texas. Bird passage was rather light, several Lesser Spotted Eagles being sighted - four more or less overhead - plus Marsh Harrier, Steppe Buzzard, Sparrowhawk, Hobby, Kestrel and Red-footed Falcon occurring as singles. Two flights of soaring White Pelicans numbered about 100 birds. Two Crested Larks, a first Red-backed Shrike and a Tree Pipit were also noted.
Following lunch Pavel took us on an intrepid journey by 4WD vehicle through a jungle of lofty reeds concealing the narrow dyke along which we travelled, reaching an eventual viewing access to another aspect of the lake. A notable show of waders began with a Green Sandpiper and Spotted Redshanks, followed by Dunlins, Little Stints and one or two Sanderlings. More interesting species included Greenshanks, Curlew Sandpipers, a Broad-billed Sandpiper, three Red-necked Phalaropes and an outstanding 50 or so Marsh Sandpipers. Small flights of Dalmatian Pelicans flew in, taking up positions in sentinel manner on posts along the reed-bed fringe. Pintail, Gadwall and Teal were the main ducks, a single Ruddy Shelduck being the top species.
Our next destination was an observation hide (which is always locked!) overlooking the south salinas by Burgas. A good show of ducks included Shoveler in addition to those already seen, also very good views of Avocets. Continuing through the city we passed Lake Vaya with its collapsed pylons, resulting from corrosion caused by Cormorant droppings. At reed-fringed lagoons attached to the lake, a pontoon containing roosting Dalmatian Pelicans was the star feature. There were many ducks, including several Wigeon, two Pochards, five Ferruginous Ducks and a female Garganey. Views of Gadwall were particularly good. A Squacco Heron was also seen. As it was by now late afternoon light was beginning to fail and Cormorants arrived to amass on surrounding pylons. A final stop was made at a muddy backwater where a Pectoral Sandpiper (which we didn't find) had been reported some days earlier. There were numerous waders, among which Wood Sandpiper and Snipe were new, and on open water beyond a large raft of Coots showed. Common Buzzards hunted over wooded hills beyond, and two Hawfinches plus a Syrian Woodpecker concluded the days bird tally. The day had remained rain-free and became brighter and milder. Back at the hotel for 18:40.

Day 3; Wed. 21 September Again cool and largely overcast, but with just a light wind. A Sandwich Tern was seen from the hotel prior to breakfast at 08:00, followed by departure at 09:00 for Strandja Natural Park in the south. After 30 minutes we had cleared Burgas, reaching Alepou marsh wetland a short while later. Immediately on stopping an adult White-tailed Eagle was spotted flying low across open water - an excellent view. Further along we came upon a flock of about 50 foraging Little Egrets, with ten Glossy Ibises close by. Mute Swans with broods were on open water, with Dabchick, Mallard, Teal and a male Pochard the only other waterfowl. A short way on Great Egrets and Grey Herons dominated. A fly-by Caspian Tern, also juvenile White-winged Black Tern, were good birds. Two Pygmy Cormorants in flight and three Honey Buzzards soaring above a wooded ridge to the rear were also seen.
After 50 minutes at the marshes we continued through Ropotamo river wetland complex and into the wooded mountains of Strandja, seeing a couple of Red-footed Falcons and Hobbies on electricity cables en route. Stops to view ridges produced a trickle of Lesser Spotted Eagles. We pulled off the road to walk along rough grassland flanked by Oakwood, where butterflies on the scene included Lesser Purple Emperors (at the time mistakenly identified as White Admirals), and Liz was delighted on finding a Preying Mantis. A Lesser Spotted Woodpecker fleetingly appeared and a Green Woodpecker crossed our path (on the wing - not on foot!). Woodlarks, Redstarts and a Red-breasted Flycatcher were otherwise the main small passerines noted. Two large groups of soaring Lesser Spotted Eagles appeared during the return walk, totalling about 100 birds, also four Black Storks. Pavel, who had disappeared to check the lower aspect of the area, had spotted two Goshawks, while we had also noted several Hobbies, Common Buzzards, Sparrowhawks and Marsh Harriers. We had lunch at the location (13:00) while watching the skies for more raptors. Another 40 or so L S Eagles duly came over, including a single Spotted Eagle (later disputed by raptor-man Bill Clark). Two subadult Imperial Eagles also showed, providing prolonged viewing through the scopes.
The next stop was at Silkosia, Bulgaria's oldest nature reserve established in 1933, where we looked (without success) for White-backed Woodpeckers in beech-dominant forest. Nuthatch, Tree-creeper, Blackbird and Robin added to the bird list. A final stop was made at Kosti, a typical old and characterful rural village. Here we enjoyed scoped views of a Grey-headed and a Middle Spotted Woodpecker in the same tree. Setting off back at 17:20 we finally arrived at the hotel 19:20. The afternoon had been rather dull with some light rain.

Day 4; Thu. 22 September A milder morning with less wind and cloud at the outset. From the hotel Red-necked and Black-necked Grebes, Slender-billed and Mediterranean Gulls were seen, also a Quail that came in from the sea and flew very close by - hitherto a "bogey" bird for David Kent, who also spotted a Harbour Porpoise. 08:00 breakfast preceded loading of baggage into the vehicle and a farewell to the friendly hospitality of our host Ivan and Hotel Byalata Kashta at 09:15. Heading north we paused at the Salinas seeing the usual show of waders - Ruffs, Redshanks and Little Stints etc. - also a few raptors drifting in from the sea into the prevailing westerly wind. Most were the now familiar L S Eagles, plus several Short-toed Eagles. A short way on another incoming group of raptors contained a single Imperial Eagle.
An hour was then spent in the ancient town of Nessebar featuring a great deal of traditional architecture, much of it of wooden construction - and a gross excess of intrusive shops selling all manner of tourism-orientated junk. On exiting the town a wailing sound, reminiscent of a cat being strangled, turned out to be an aged foot-tapping bag-piper in traditional dress. Birds on the scene included both Yellow-legged and Caspian Gulls, a flight of nine White Pelicans out to sea and a single Black Stork.
Continuing north the route ascended through wooded hills, bringing us to our next stop at Hanska Shatra - a restaurant overlooking the garish and unsightly complex of Sunny Beach resort. A steady influx of raptors came in from the sea, several passing close overhead: mainly L S Eagles and Steppe Buzzards interspersed with Sparrowhawks, including occasional Levants. Honey Buzzard, Marsh Harrier, Short-toed Eagle, Hobby and a group of five Ravens also passed through. During exploration of tracks below the restaurant several butterflies were active: Cardinal, Clouded Yellow, Lesser Purple Emperor, Queen of Spain Fritillary and Small Blue together with unidentified whites. Blue hawker (sp?) and red darter (sp?) dragonflies were also seen. We located the valley where the main corridor of raptor passage passed close overhead, joined by Bill the raptor-man who confirmed a distant harrier as Pallid Harrier.
Back at the restaurant we had lunch (13:45) by the parking area, before heading up to a higher location known as "Picnic" to look for Sombre Tits, which alas we failed to see - it was rather cold and extremely windy. One or two Woodlarks and a Green Woodpecker appeared and the rather striking naked-pink flowers of the attractive Meadow Saffron were found (also found around Hanska Shatra).
Progressing north we next turned off for Cape Ermine, pausing beyond the turn for a first Wheatear - the stop fortuitously producing excellent views of a Saker Falcon that passed directly overhead. Further along a Roller was scoped on an electricity cable. Reaching cliff-top scrub above the sea we failed to find cetaceans of any description, but soon heard the calls of Sombre Tits and duly came upon a flock of about ten birds that showed exceedingly well. Lesser Whitethroats, Corn Buntings and a very close Honey Buzzard were also seen.
Back on the main road (18:00) we headed for Varna , a few drops of rain falling towards the city where it was overcast but much warmer (20? C) than it had been further south. Hotel Yanitsa, our next base overlooking the Black Sea at Krapetz, was reached at 20:25 - two mice and two "moggies" having been seen during the last few kms. Unfortunately we arrived to discover the hotel to be out of water.

Day 5; Fri. 23 September Those of us up and about before breakfast saw Black-throated Divers, Great Crested and Black-necked Grebes on the sea, and during a walk along the road came upon a fall of migrants including Spotted and Red-breasted Flycatchers, Redstarts, Blackcaps and Willow Warblers, also a Lesser Spotted Eagle in a tree. The morning was very mild and still, with sunshine pressing through a light cloud cover.
Pavel arrived shortly after our 08:30 breakfast, joining us for a walk along the sea front where Lesser Black-backed Gull, Bee-eater, Whinchat, Garden Warbler and Tree Sparrow added to the checklist. Immediately below the hotel Pavel found us a dapper male R-b. Flycatcher still in full breeding plumage, together with two Great Reed Warblers.
Raptors duly appeared on the scene, first Steppe and Honey Buzzards, arriving in from the sea in soaring groups of up to 30 birds. Numbers progressively increased as gatherings emerged from the low cloud canopy. By midday over 1000 Steppe and Honey Buzzards had passed over in equal numbers, with a supporting cast that included Common Buzzards, Marsh and Montagu's Harriers, Red and Black Kites, Lesser Spotted Eagles, a single Spotted Eagle, a Goshawk, Sparrowhawks, two Levant Sparrowhawks, Red-footed Falcons, Hobbies, Kestrels, a Lesser Kestrel and an Eleonora's Falcon. A flight of nine Spoonbills was also noted. Incidental finds included a dead mouse, dead vole and festering dead rat. The day had become extremely warm with a developing wind.
As the hotel water-shortage situation seemed set to continue we packed in favour of an alternative accommodation in Kavarna.
Lake Durankulak to the north was next on our agenda, a roadside Syrian Woodpecker prompting a first stop just after leaving. A flooded field bottom was then checked for waders, just a few wagtails showing at the water margin. A flanking steppe-type field contained five Long-legged Buzzards and a single Common Buzzard, also a Marsh Harrier and a number of Kestrels, all hunting slowly into the wind. A flight of over 20 Bee-eaters then flew close by to our rear, given away by their distinctive calls. We came on the birds perched in tall bushes further up the road, approaching sufficiently close to take photographs.
13:45 we arrived at a fish restaurant on the banks of Lake Durankulak, a Whitethroat and male Spanish Sparrows seen along the approach track. Although rather windy we sat down to a delicious lunch of locally caught Catfish and Sander accompanied by fish soup - while Marsh Harriers quartered fields opposite, flycatchers entertained us in the restaurant environs, and a Tree Frog called from Petunias in a flower box by our table.
It was almost 15:00 by the time we moved off, seeing more Bee-eaters, Turtle Doves, Tree Pipits and Corn Buntings on overhead cables following the road. At an elevated overview of ploughed fields we then came on a juvenile Pallid Harrier, making hunting passes at a Hoopoe close in front of us. Following a muddy track alongside a field of peppers we reached a reed-dominated aspect of the lake, where David Kent flushed a couple of Quail and six Squacco Herons lifted from the water margin. Grey Herons were everywhere, sometimes flighting in groups of 20 or more birds. Over 30 Marsh Harriers hunted the area, with Coots and a few distant ducks the only visible waterfowl. Along another track we had good views of a Wryneck, with large numbers of flycatchers, Redstarts, Red-backed Shrikes, sylvia and phylloscopus warblers lifting ahead of us. A passage of 27 Red-footed Falcons then passed in front of us. Reaching disused fishponds our first mammal, a Rabbit, was seen. Walking along dividing dykes we spotted Wood Sandpipers, Sedge Warblers, Great and Little Egrets, scoped a couple of Kingfishers, watched flights of eight Purple Herons and nine Spoonbills, and found a Balkan Wall Lizard.
After departing the area 18:00 a stop was made at Pavel's home (a Weasel was seen en route), where we enjoyed the friendly hospitality of his charming wife Tatyana. Here we collected a Corncrake rescued in a bedraggled state (soaked by heavy rainfall) the previous evening, releasing it on the way to Hotel Panorama our new base in Kavarna (reached 19:90).
Great numbers of hirundines (swallow family) were seen throughout the day, which had become progressively colder and overcast with a spell of light rain during the afternoon.

Day 6; Sat. 24 September A cold but bright morning with slight haze to begin with, mist out to sea and just a gentle breeze. After an 08:00 breakfast we were out for 09:10, spotting a Hobby, Red-footed Falcon, Kestrel, Sparrowhawk and Levant Sparrowhawk from the hotel. Two Red Kites, a Steppe Buzzard and Lesser Spotted Eagle appeared as we set off for steppe habitat towards Cape Kaliakra, where several individuals armed with shotguns were combing the area. A close juvenile Montagu's Harrier was an early spot, followed by flocks of Calandra Larks numbering over 100 birds. Wheatears were dotted about the area while a steady trickle of raptors passed over. Towards the cape we walked out to pools of water, finding just wagtails, Wheatears and the inescapable Red-backed Shrikes. Three Rollers and a Cuckoo appeared on an electricity cable beyond, while upwards of 30 Bee-eaters cruised around.
Having sent a message to a Naturetrek group who were also in the area - about Spotted and Booted Eagles that we'd seen earlier - Pavel received a reciprocal call about Dotterels on the steppe, inspiring us to head back to look for the birds. We duly found them, a pair, enjoying excellent views through the scopes.
Next stop was nearby Bolata gorge, a flock of 20 Black and two White Storks seen on the way down. Here we took lunch at 12:15, while watching Whitethroats, Garden and Great Reed Warblers in the dense surrounding scrub. Walking up a rather muddy recently flooded road we examined reed-bed habitat, two Squacco Herons being the first birds spotted. Two Little Crakes (female and juvenile) then showed, and a Little Bittern flew across open water. Pavel scoped a Sedge Warbler, a Marsh Warbler then showing nearby. Overhead raptor passage included many Sparrowhawks, Honey and Steppe Buzzards, Marsh and Montagu's Harriers, several R-f. Falcons and Hobbies, plus single Black and Red Kites, Goshawk and Osprey. An Alpine Swift also flew by.
Departing the gorge for Cape Kaliakra we met oncoming flights of Black Storks and Dalmatian Pelicans, arriving to find the afternoon temperature quite hot. The cape is an excellent location of archaeological note, featuring remains of an 8th C. citadel and monument to 40 young maidens who, according to legend, knotted their hair together and leapt to their deaths rather than face violation by invading Turks. Around the headland there were many Cormorants and Shags (Black Sea subspecies desmarestii), Jackdaws of the eastern white-collared race soemmerringii, and a Peregrine passed overhead. A "rusty-tailed" shrike at the entrance to the site was initially dismissed as Red-backed, but we finally left the site with a deep suspicion that it may in fact have been an "Isabelline" Shrike - of course we shall never know. Unfortunately we failed to see any cetaceans from the headland, but the Black sea coastal cliff scenery was in itself worthwhile reward for the visit.
The afternoon concluded with a walk across open fields in which we found fresh tracks of mammals: Jackal, Fox, Raccoon Dog and Polecat. Over 30 Turtle Doves lined up on electricity cables and a Wryneck was seen in adjoining scrub. Back at the hotel 17:45.

Following dinner we set off (20:30) on an excursion to look for mammals by spotlight. A modest show of specimens included Brown Hares, Quail, a bat, Green Toad, and what was called by DK to be a possible marten. But when the two bright eyes suddenly lifted from the ground and the creature flew off, we realised it was a Nightjar! There were also one or two unidentified items. Back at the hotel 22:05.

Day 7; Sun. 25 September Violent thunder and lightning overnight, accompanied by heavy rain, left the morning grey, cool, windy and damp. After an 08:30 breakfast we were on our way by 09:30, again visiting Bolata gorge where we discovered the already muddy road to be even worse after overnight rain. Raptor passage was similar to the previous day, but wind had a subduing effect on small bird activity. Seven more Alpine Swifts passed through. A message from the Naturetrek leader alerted us to Stone Curlews on the steppe, which we searched for but failed to find. There were lots of Quail about, mainly seen lifting before the guns of hunters, who were also shooting at Calandra Larks.
Morning tea was enjoyed in the comforts of Pavel's home, a Golden Oriole seen in the street at Shabla.
Returning to Durankulak a visit was made to the Branta conservation centre (established by Pavel's Foundation "Le Balkan"), where we had lunch at 13:00. 70 Red-footed falcons were counted on roadside cables en route. From the centre balcony a flight of 50 Spoonbills appeared over the lake, five Night Herons lifted from a wooded island and the inevitable gatherings of diverse raptors appeared - mainly Marsh Harriers - also Jays, Redstarts, wagtails and warblers.
Rain (at times heavy) had persisted since Bolata, but abated after lunch. We next visited a camping location by the coast, passing a flooded field containing a good show of waders: numerous Ruffs and Spotted Redshanks, two Greenshanks, five Marsh Sandpipers, three Wood Sandpipers, a Common Sandpiper, Little Stints and Dunlins, also Gadwall and Teal. From the sea shore Great Crested and Black-necked Grebes were seen, while a mixed flock of Black-headed, Mediterranean, Little and Yellow-billed Gulls roosted on the beach. A reported Pied Wheatear wasn't in evidence, a search through surrounding cover producing just Robin, Redstart, Spotted and Red-breasted Flycatchers (in breeding plumage), and a Kingfisher perched by an adjoining lagoon. On departing the location a Lesser Grey Shrike was spotted on an electricity pole.
17:00 we picked up our baggage from Kavarna and transferred to Hotel Orbita in Varna, arriving 18:00, later visiting an excellent restaurant for a most enjoyable last meal accompanied by folk music cabaret - a fitting conclusion to the tour.

Day 8; Mon. 26 September 06:50 reveille for a 08:00 departure to the airport following breakfast, the morning sunny and mild. After bidding our farewells to Pavel we boarded our flight for Sofia (scheduled for 09:25), which took off 50 minutes late. Onwards travel from Sofia to London Heathrow (14:45 scheduled flight) was late departing by 45 minutes.

Notes/Comments: Although we knew this would be a good tour it has to be said that it met and even exceeded expectations on the bird scene, with an outstanding tally of 178 species recorded in six days - good views being achieved of the most sought after. Raptors inevitably dominated, of which we recorded no less than a remarkable 27 species. The extremely wet conditions that had resulted in disastrous flooding for the inhabitants of Shabla and elsewhere also had a bearing on wildlife movements, mammal activity doubtless being suppressed as reflected in our low tally of just four species recorded.
As Bulgaria was generally experiencing horrendously wet weather, with daily forecasts of heavy rainfall for our area in the south, we were remarkably fortunate to enjoy a dry week with the exception of Day 7.
Wildlife aside, I'm quite sure that locational content, visits to some very special environments, comfortable well-located hotels, good food and good company are collective ingredients that also weigh importantly into final appraisal of the adventure. Ultimately the overall experience could not have been so full and rewarding without the great expertise and tireless efforts of our guide and driver Pavel, whose unerring sharp-eyed vigilance ensured that we didn't miss a thing.


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