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A Report from

Bulgaria- short trip to south-east areas, 3rd-8th June 2010,

Ed Keeble

This was a quick return to some favourite haunts with some specialities in mind and not an attempt to clean up.  But some quick notes are presented here in case useful to anyone considering an early summer spring visit. 

Dates, logistics and route:  
Weeks 3-4 of May still look to be the ideal time to go to Bulgaria, if you want migrant quantity to add to the breeding quality.  I had to delay until week 1 of June, which I knew was not ideal as spring migration would have pretty much fizzled out along the coast.  In late June, July the breeding birds are still here of course, but the birding gets harder.

I could have compressed the trip into 3 full days, but would have been at the mercy of bad luck and bad weather (and would have been completely knackered on my return).  So the 4th day was planned in to give me some flexibility, either extra time hanging out in Sakar or if that didn’t work out, chasing up to Durankulak and Kaliakra.  In the end I stuck to my resolve and spent some time watching and waiting in Sakar, so I visited no sites north of Varna.  Therefore no Eagle Owl, Paddyfield Warbler, Pied Wheatear etc. this time.

I flew in and out of Varna, as the flight times suited me.  The net result of this was that my route effectively had to be a big circle south from Varna, total driving distance a demanding 1500Km (a fair chunk of that distance being accounted for by the loop out to Trigrad for Wallcreepers).  Roads are improved but still variable, so you can’t really put your foot down over much of that distance.  Plus speed cops are frequent especially on the outskirts of towns and villages. 

Day 1:  Arrive Varna late evening.

Day 2: South from Varna towards Bourgas, then west inland towards Plovdiv and south to Trigrad for Wallcreepers.  This was about a 7 hour drive and the middle stages were pretty dull through vineyards and farmland.  Stopped at Goritsa for Semi-collared Flycatcher on the way through.  Then stops on several occasions for Lesser Grey Shrike and Roller, so not all dead time.  Arrived at Trigrad in time for a couple of hours birding and to enjoy the Wallcreepers and the scenery in early evening light.

Day 3:  Morning at Trigrad with the Wallcreepers (wonderful until it started to rain at 11AM) then across to E Rhodopes (Krumovgrad) at lunchtime for vultures etc.  This was about a 4 hour drive, with some dullish stages through scenic but not very birdy forested mountain roads.  It saw me through some mixed weather though, with quite heavy rain during the afternoon.  Arrived Krumovgrad early evening in better weather, with time for a couple of hours birding and caught an Egyptian Vulture heading for roost.  Heavy rain overnight.

Day 4:  Rain cleared early morning.  Morning in E Rhodopes (Madzharovo) watching vultures coming off the roost etc. until elevenses, then across to Sakar (Topolovgrad) and birding there mid-afternoon (Imperial Eagle, Masked Shrike, Olive Tree Warbler all safely in the bag by teatime).  About 3-4 hours drive from Krumovgrad across and up to Topolovgrad, excluding birding time. 

Day 5:  Birding in Sakar/Topolovgrad area.  Several extended blocks of time spent at souslik colonies waiting for Imperial Eagles and Long-legged Buzzards to come in and enjoy the buffet.

Day 6:  Morning in Sakar/Topolovgrad area.  Left there late morning to return to Varna for a late evening flight.  About 5 hours drive to Varna, excluding birding time.  Stops for Montagu’s Harrier (unsuccessful), then brief stop by the Bourgas lakes and ended up by taking the inland road from Bourgas up to Varna, winding over the mountains via Panicovo.

Guiding and accommodation:  You might not want a guide all of the time and not to the exclusion of finding your own birds, but I would strongly recommend recruiting some help for maybe a day or a half a day in Sakar.  In addition to some stakeouts for tricky species, you should be able to get some logistical help with hotels etc. for the rest of the trip. 

I have used Neophron before and would recommend them- website is at  Dimiter Georgiev and Stoycho Stoychev again did a very good job for me, both as bird guides and on logistics. 

The Petar Iankov book (Where to Watch Birds in Bulgaria) is still pretty good if you can get hold of it, although personally I find his trick of showing roads in blue so they look like rivers takes some getting used to...

Good hotels throughout, including an especially nice one in the forested hills immediately south of Topolovgrad.  Clean room, hot water, Swallows nesting in the dining room and Wild at Heart dubbed into Bulgarian on the TV.  What more could you wish for?  That one was 45 BGN Lev for bed, breakfast, evening meal and a couple of beers.  Away from the main centres, you will need cash in addition to cards- and Euros are no longer as readily accepted as they once were.

Sites:  I have included a few comments here.  Detailed site directions are beyond this report, but I am happy to respond to email queries. 

Goritsa: (oak forest south of Varna)  A fantastic soundscape here with fledged Hawfinches or Chaffinches being fed seemingly at every few steps.  Nightingale singing and, after a bit of casting around, a pair of splendid Semi-collared Flycatchers.  As an added bonus, they seemed to be interested in a natural nest site and not one of the many nest boxes. 

Trigrad (rocky gorge in extreme south):  The legendary site for Wallcreepers, with a nest close to the road this year (and last year).  My first time here and I was expecting something more stark and overpowering in terms of scenery - actually it was rather reminiscent of Cheddar gorge.  Lovely river for Grey Wagtails and Dipper plus Peregrine, Black Woodpecker, Nutcracker, Crag Martins.  So all in all a very, very nice place to be.

Studen Kladenetz:  Classic site for vultures, Black Stork.  The 1:400:000 maps don’t show this area well.  I accessed the BSPB vulture feeding station from the south (left hand turn before Krumovgrad to Kovil, then left at the BSPB in the village of Potochnitsa).  This and the previous site are not Gigrin Farm, so don’t expect daily feeds and don’t expect 100s of raptors when they do (although I noticed a report of 70 vultures from here of 3 species in May 2010, which is pretty good by any standards).  The bridge over the river en route to Potochnitsa provides a fine place to watch feeding Black Storks and see what else comes by.

Madzharovo (rocks just beyond Borislavci):  The other classic site for vultures, with a BSPB feeding station at Madzharovo.  Well worth getting to the rocks beyond Borislavci at 8 or 9ish AM to catch the vultures as they lift off. 

Topolovgrad: Things revolve around the sousliks here, with Imperial Eagles preying on them and Isabelline Wheatears nesting in their burrows.  Sites for the eagles are sensitive but (if you are not guided) try asking at the Imperial Eagle centre in town and they may be able to direct you to areas to watch from.  To get to the centre, take route 76 north-east out of town towards Elhovo.  The centre is on the left on route 76, about 200 metres before the stop sign at the T junction with route 7602.

Sakar (oak forest in Turkish border zone between Svilengrad and Matocira):  Roadside oak scrub (old coppice in some cases) provides wonderful habitat for Olive Tree Warbler, Woodchat and Masked Shrike.  The latter can be tricky, as they like the semi-closed canopy.

Poda:  (marsh reserve south of Bourgas).  I’ve never really had much joy here, except for some marvellous Bitterns one cold winter.  I did drop in there this time but (as expected) found more in the way of Cormorant/Grey Heron/Pochard than Pygmy Cormorant/Purple Heron/Ferruginous Duck.  So worth a visit if you have time, but don’t expect to clean-up on the specials here.

This list is not representative of what you would get on a fully-guided multi-observer trip:  much fuller reports and longer lists can readily be found on the web.  But some notes on selected species follow. 

Great Crested Grebe
White Pelican:  I didn’t fully check the Bourgas lakes for any lingering parties, but had two wonderful encounters with birds gliding into a lake near Poroj, about 11Km north of Kableskovo.  The second group I saw close overhead from high up in the mountains above Panicovo on the backroad from Kableskovo to Varna:  this has a view way down into the valley with the Poroj lake  looked like it might be a fantastic site to watch from in autumn when storks are on the move.
Night Heron
Squacco Heron
Little Egret
Grey Heron
Black Stork:  Several around Studen Kladenetz.
White Stork:  Common.  One or two nests in each village, large young, nests full of Spanish Sparrows.  A flock of 70 circling over freshly cut stubble on way up to Burgas.
Spoonbill:  A few at Poda
Mute Swan
Honey Buzzard: 3 in Sakar
Black Kite:  3 in Sakar.
Egyptian Vulture:  In steep decline in Bulgaria, due to poaching and poisoning at home and abroad.  1 adult at Studen Kladenetz, 1 adult at Madzharovo.  Also stirring views of an unringed immature sparring with crows over a hilltop in Sakar, along with Lesser Spotted Eagle and Common Buzzard - a very rare sighting, as the last two breeding pairs of Egyptian Vulture have been lost from here.
Griffon Vulture: 8 at Madzharovo.
Short-toed Eagle:  1 seen at Madzharovo, 1 on pylons E of Topolovgrad and 1 in the high meadows in the forests SE of Topolovgrad, mobbed by Common Buzzards.  Not numerous- they have big territories here.
Marsh Harrier
[Montagu’s Harrier:  Not seen, despite an hour in a prime site for them- the big cereal fields around Bolijarovo east of Elhovo.]
Levant Sparrowhawk:  1 fleetingly just east of Svilengrad.  If you use a guide, worth asking for any stakeouts. 
Goshawk:  1 near Topolovgrad, very high.
Common Buzzard
Long-legged Buzzard:  5 in Sakar area, all in treeless areas.  Looking very large, long-winged and bright after a few days of watching Common Buzzards.
Lesser Spotted Eagle:  Present in semi-wooded areas of Sakar- I saw either pairs or individuals in 6 locations.  .
Imperial Eagle:  Increasing under protection in Sakar.  Wonderful prolonged views of a pair near Topolovgrad.  One or both on the wing for most of the day, in cloudy weather keeping lower and occasionally using pylons and low perches to hunt from.  Also a single adult seen near the Turkish border.
Booted Eagle:  2 in Madzharovo area and singles at various locations in Sakar.
Hobby:  Seen on several occasions.
Peregrine:  At Trigrad and Madzharovo
Black-winged Stilt
Northern Lapwing
Yellow-legged Gull
Common Tern
Rock Dove
Collared Dove
Turtle Dove:  Common, including one flock of 30 on wires in Sakar.
Little Owl
Common Swift
Pallid Swift:  The majority of the swifts breeding on the tower blocks in Topolovgrad are (I am told..) Pallids.
Alpine Swift
Green Woodpecker
Black Woodpecker:  Seen in flight at Trigrad.
Syrian Woodpecker
Middle Spotted Woodpecker:  Pair at Goritsa. 
Calandra Lark
Crested Lark
Woodlark:  Fledged young in the high meadows by Topolovgrad.
Crag Martin
Red-rumped Swallow
House Martin
Black-headed Wagtail
Grey Wagtail
White Wagtail
Dipper:  In the river at Trigrad
Common Nightingale:  Singing everywhere with cover.
Black Redstart
Isabelline Wheatear:  Astonishingly numerous in places around Topolovgrad.  I counted over 50 along 100 metres of dirt road crossing a souslik colony just on the edge of town.  Presumably comprising a series of fledged families. 
Northern Wheatear
Black-eared Wheatear:  Several seen, Madzharovo and rocky areas in Sakar.
Blue Rock Thrush:  On the high rocks on the way to Madzharovo.
Song Thrush
Mistle Thrush
Great Reed Warbler
Eastern Olivaceous Warbler:  First bird of the trip- singing outside my hotel window in Varna.
Olive Tree Warbler:  Noisy and easy to see in the margins of scrubby oak forest between Svilengrad and Matocira.  Singing at all times of day.  Harder to catch up with further into the forest where the habitat is more closed and continuous.
Subalpine Warbler:  In scrub at Topolovgrad.
[Sylvia warblers generally:  I did not put any effort into locating any, so got the low return that I deserved- a few fleeting Subalpines.  Barred Warblers had pretty much stopped singing.]
Spotted Flycatcher
Semi-collared Flycatcher:  Not quite as easy as I expected at Goritsa and others have reported the same.  Some the nest boxes look they may have been opened up a bit by woodpeckers.
Sombre Tit:  Stoycho was surprised when I ignored one bouncing around by the car as I reversed out of a layby in Sakar.  Apparently a lot of time is devoted on tours to locating these spectacular beasts...  Also seen in the rocks en route to Madzharovo.
Great Tit
[Rock Nuthatch:  Not seen by me this time.  Worth asking at vulture stations for locations of known nests, for example on the tall pinnacle in the rocks en route to Madzharovo.]
Wallcreeper:  Glorious views of both adults bringing food to the nest and toing and froing in the gorge itself.  At one point the male circled in a high display flight and then had a wing-flicking stand-off with another male on the east face of the gorge.
Golden Oriole:  Common.  Last bird of the trip was an oriole singing in the car park at Varna airport.
Red-backed Shrike:  Common
Lesser Grey Shrike:  Common in open country in central and eastern areas.
Woodchat Shrike:  Common in oak scrub, Sakar.
Masked Shrike:  Beautiful views of 1 male in oak scrub between Svilengrad and Matocira, but quite elusive.  Maybe easier when they are fresh in, in May.  Other reports from 2010 in similar habitat in the Ljubimec area.
Nutcracker:  1 at Pamporovo on the way through to Trigrad.
Hooded Crow
Raven:  At Trigrad
House Sparrow
Spanish Sparrow
Hawfinch:  Common.  Fledged young at Goritsa.
Rock Bunting:  At Madzharovo, in the rocks just beyond Borislavci.
Black-headed Bunting:  Common in Sakar
Corn Bunting

Some nice surprises.  Wild Cat and Golden Jackal within 10 minutes of each other along roads between Sladun and Matocira on the Turkish border.  Also Brown Hare, Fallow Deer, Pine Martin (roadkill).  Souslik in Sakar.


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