Black Sea Coast

'grand scale migration of raptors, storks and pelicans;
mammals and reptiles of the steppe'

Late September sees one of Europe's major movements of raptors, storks and other migrants over the Bosphorus, but these birds first filter along the Black Sea coast (the 'Via Pontica' flyway) where this exciting new tour is based.
Pavel Simeonov, our man on the scene who co-leaded this event, is one of Bulgaria's leading naturalists and ornithologists. I first met Pavel eight years ago in Belarus and regard him as the kind of professional but genial individual who fits perfectly into a Great Glen Wildlife tour.

David Kent - GGW

Tour report 2004

BULGARIA - the Black Sea Coast
27 September - 4 October 2004; Guides: David Kent (GGW) and Pavel Simeonov (Branta-Tours)

Participants: Frank Newington Janet Newington George Worthington Margaret Worthington Cliff Jackson

Day 1; Mon. 27 Sept. Following rendezvous at London Heathrow, Terminal 1, we boarded our aircraft for the scheduled 08:55 flight to Sofia with British Airways, finally lifting off late at about 09:40. Touching down at Sofia (14:40) Magpies and Rooks - first birds of the tour - were duly noted by the runway. After collecting tickets from the Hemus Air desk for our onwards flight to Varna we enjoyed T/coffee in the second-floor restaurant, from which gatherings of Swifts, flocks of Starlings, a couple of Kestrels and a cat stalking the rooftops helped keep us amused.
Our scheduled 19:00 flight took off just fifteen minutes late, arriving in Varna at 19:55 following a bumpy passage through storm clouds (the surrounding lightning displays were quite 'inspiring'!). Our guide Pavel Simeonov, tour-leader of Branta-Tours company, linked up with us at the baggage reclaim and, by 20:20, we were heading north. Hotel “Yanitsa”, our exceedingly comfortable hotel at Krapetz on the shore of the Black Sea, was reached at 21:50. A late but tasty meal awaited us, accompanied by a welcoming shot of Rakia (Bulgaria's answer to Scotch whisky). At 17?C. the evening was most agreeable, a full moon casting a path of reflected light across the Black Sea surface - the ingredients of a perfect introduction.

Day 2; Tue. 28 Sept. Sunrise over the Black Sea was the vista to which we awakened, viewed from the balconies to our rooms. Breakfast at 08:00 was followed by departure at 09:00, the day starting mild and becoming increasingly warm. A roadside Syrian Woodpecker prompted our first stop, just a few kms. into our journey. The stop also produced the first of at least 10 million Red-backed Shrikes, the first of many Lesser Spotted Eagles, a Short-toed Eagle mobbed by a Sparrowhawk, a female Marsh Harrier and handsome male Red-footed Falcon that presented a wonderful image when viewed through the scopes. Further along four more R-f. Falcons perched on overhead cables, with another six hawking insects around a village.
Shabla Lake was our first main destination, which we viewed from sparse grassland to the south. Two Squacco Herons, the snakelike necks of juvenile Purple Herons, a scattering of Grey Herons plus group of about 20 Little Egrets were among the first birds noted. Close inspection through scopes of the latter disclosed a single Cattle Egret - an extremely rare bird for Northern Black Sea coast of Bulgaria according to Pavel.
Moving on to Shabla Tuzla, a small saline lake close to the sea, a female Golden Oriole crossed our path. An opening examination of the scene, where a glare hampered satisfactory viewing, disclosed Mallard, Teal, Pintail, Black-headed, Little, Slender-billed and Yellow-legged Gulls, three Caspian and a Sandwich Tern, Dunlin, Ruff and Marsh Sandpiper. A shift to a better vantage point enabled us to see the aforementioned more clearly, and add Mute Swan, Oystercatcher, Ringed, Little Ringed and Golden Plovers, Lapwing, Snipe, Little Stint and Reed Bunting. A flock of Shelducks flew by and a group of Spoonbills was seen to rise on the soar. As we left the area an extremely unlikely Ring Ouzel appeared in a tree by the track, a Hoopoe being spotted shortly afterwards.
Onwards travel led us across open steppe habitat dotted with derelict oil tanks - relicts of former oil exploration activity. Wheatears and Whinchats appeared as we advanced through this semiarid terrain and, at a stop by an abandoned military barracks, we were presented with the star bird of the location - an unexpected Isabelline Wheatear. Although the species nests here, its presence was a surprise in view of the late date in the season. It proved a great asset to have Northern Wheatear and the Isabelline together in the same field of view for purposes of comparison.
Duly arriving at the headland of “Yailata” we stopped by a commanding overview of the sea for a late lunch. The location was an archaeological site, the surface area containing many tomb chambers hewn directly into the rock. A beautifully patterned Green Toad and one or two Balkan Wall Lizards added diversity to the interest fund, while a clifftop Tawny Pipit and first Long-legged Buzzard kept the bird count on the climb. Groups of Shags (Black Sea subspecies) appeared on offshore rocks. A fairly thorough scanning of surrounding steppe failed to produce the hoped-for European Sousliks, just their burrows and runs. During continued travel across the steppe flocks of migrants were encountered, mainly Skylarks and Calandra Larks - particularly good views enjoyed of the latter. A most welcome refreshment break was then taken at the Club M?diterran?e village of “Rusalka” resort village. Reaching the road to Cape Kaliakra early evening a wander into shrubby steppe cover was rewarded with countless Corn Buntings, innumerable Red-backed Shrikes, a good many Chiffchaffs, plus another Hoopoe and a Roller perched on a power line.
Taking a spur road to the north-east an impressive gorge called “Bolata” was reached in which several Pygmy Cormorants flew up out of tall reeds. This was the haunt of nesting Eagle Owls (Bubo bubo). In the light of late evening we slowly strolled up the road, watching horizons for raptors and studying dense reed beds for aquatic birds. Interplay between a large female Goshawk and Common Buzzards was well worth watching, a pale adult Long-legged Buzzard appearing also. Squeal-like calls from the dense cover disclosed Water Rail presence, a bird showing rather well in our scopes. A Little Crake was next to show, proving more difficult to scope in the failing light. A Great Spotted Woodpecker (Aquila clanga), Great and Blue Tits, and two Red-breasted Flycatchers were other incidental birds seen and a Red Fox opened the mammal tally, alas our Eagle Owl deigned to show.
Aided by powerful spotlight we looked for mammals on the return journey, a Brown Hare, bat, mouse and several feral dogs being the net result. A short visit to Pavel's home in Shabla, where we met and enjoyed the kindly hospitality of his charming wife Tatyana and adoringly mischievous son Pavel junior, preceded arrival at the hotel 21:05 at the end of a very full and rewarding opening day.

Day 3; Wed. 29 Sept. 08:00 breakfast was followed by departure at 09:00 for Lake Durankulak, located to the north at the edge of the Black Sea. Along the approach track to the south-west a number of Red-breasted Flycatchers appeared in flanking tree cover, followed by a number of Marsh Harriers perched uncharacteristically in a line of trees in a field beyond. The same trees also contained a Common Buzzard, a female Sparrowhawk being chased by Magpies, a Roller, plus two Great Egrets together with Grey Herons. A Turtle Dove perched in a foreground bush. Checking the Black Sea shoreline a gathering of gulls contained several Mediterranean and a couple of Common. Progressing to the lake edge two unusually large flocks of Little Grebes contained collectively fifty individuals. A Great Crested Grebe, Coots, juvenile Little Tern and Little Gulls were also seen, and a Stone Curlew was heard flying over. Continued travel took us away from the lakeside through ploughed arable and steppe habitat - haunts of Steppe and Marbled Polecats which, although occasionally seen by day, were not in evidence on this occasion. A Wryneck flew across our path and alighted on the ground just a few metres from the vehicle, presenting a close and prolonged view, and one or two Wood Larks performed their song flights. Reaching the northern aspect of the lake a Wood Warbler appeared in a bush, also a Pygmy Cormorant in a reed bed.
Lunch was taken at a fish restaurant, where delicious fish soup followed by locally caught catfish was enjoyed in the open air. Assorted common tits, warblers and a Red-breasted Flycatcher flitted about the premises, while an adult Whiskered and several juvenile Black Terns quartered the lake surface beyond.
Onwards to the north-east corner a number of disused fish ponds was reached, where, from an overlooking dyke, Pavel soon found us about 10 Ferruginous Ducks plus Paddyfield and Moustached Warblers, the latter two requiring a period of concentrated search before satisfactory views were achieved. A few Tufted Ducks, Sedge and Reed Warblers, Bearded Tits and a Bluethroat collectively contributed to a most worthwhile bird tally. Finally visiting a coastal point to the extreme north of the ponds during the late afternoon - two or three subspecies of Blue-headed Wagtail seen en route - we sauntered into typical Paddyfield Warbler breeding habitat as flights off Cormorants came in to roost from the Black Sea. A couple of Black-necked Grebes were seen offshore.
Although nearing the close of this excellent day of top-rate birdwatching, the best was still to come. On reaching the main road for the return journey, power cables along the route contained ranks of what at first glance might have been taken for Starlings. But we were in fact witnessing amassed gatherings of Red-footed Falcons in readiness for migration. They also lifted in small flocks from roadside trees and bushes as we travelled on, an estimated 500 birds in total! A brief visit was made to the Le Balkan-Bulgaria Foundation “Branta information center”, with its overview of Lake Durankulak and arable fields where thousands of Red-breasted Geese arrive to over-winter. About 50 Corn Buntings perched in a bush outside the centre. Back at the hotel 18:00 at the close of a warm but at times grey day, with just a few drops of rain.

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