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|A Report from birdtours.co.uk|
Bulgaria, winter birding, 5th-9th February, 2003 ,
Ed Keeble, John Lowe (UK)
The main objective of this trip was to see Red-breasted Geese and wintering raptors.
It is vital to get this right. The best time for Romania seems to be October-November. The best time for Bulgaria is later, with goose numbers peaking in January. We deliberately left it until early February, so that the shooting season would be over and the geese would be a little more approachable, but don't leave it too late: numbers drop during February as birds start to head north.
The morning lift-off of geese from Sabla Lake and Durankulak Lake is not to be missed (and so it is well worth finding accommodation at Kavarna, to the north of Varna and closer to the lakes). You need to be in position by about 7AM.
At Sabla we were able to get right underneath the geese as they headed inland from the north arm of the lake (in fact, the north arm is a separate lake). The Durankulak flock can be watched from the north side of the main body of the lake and is more impressive in terms of sheer numbers, but we weren't so close to the geese and didn't get quite the same overhead "roar" as at Sabla.
Once the morning lift-off is over, it is a question of cruising about looking for approachable feeding flocks. It is incredible how easily a big flock of geese can simply disappear- at one point, we could see the neck and head of a single White-fronted Goose on a gentle ridge in a field which we knew contained several thousand Red-breasted and White-fronted Geese, because we had just seen them fly in.
The geese were still pretty jumpy (one week after the end of the official hunting season) and would not let us much closer than about 400 metres either on foot or in a car. It is possible that they would have been more settled a week or two later- the pattern seems to be that in the last few weeks leading up to their return north, the Red-breasted Geese tend to stay closer to the lake and feed intensively on the immediately adjacent fields. The geese at Sabla Tuzla (the small lake just south of the campsite at Sabla) had pretty much fallen into this pattern, feeding on the fields nearest the lake and dropping back onto the water whenever flushed by traffic to the Sabla campsite.
We had planned to go in February 2001/2002, but cancelled at the last minute as temperatures had dropped to around -10C, all of the lakes were frozen and there were no geese. In that year Red-breasted Geese were seen in various places through the Mediterranean and reportedly some even made it all the way to their historical wintering grounds along the Nile. There is still some debate about where they go to in a hard winter- general dispersal into the Balkans and beyond and/or return NE to the Crimea (Sivash Bay).
There should be geese to watch in Bulgaria in a normal winter, but numbers depend on the weather and you should be prepared to make a last-minute go/no go decision based on local information (see Guide below). In February 2003, goose numbers were good, temperatures were around freezing and there was only the odd patch of snow.
We flew into Sofia and drove to the coast (northern route to Varna via Veliko Turnovo) by hired car. It should take about 6 hours, but the roads are of variable quality and it could take you a lot longer, if it is snowing. The roads were noticeably better on the route back (Bourgas to Sofia via Karlovo).
We looked at two alternatives: flying Sofia-Varna (ruled out on the basis of unreliable winter schedules) and overnight sleeper train Sofia-Varna (ruled out due to timing constraints- worth investigation for a longer trip).
We had the use of Dimiter Georgiev's 4WD car whilst at the lakes, which was a real boon. Without it, it would be a bracing walk to cover the last mile or so from the main road to the Sabla roost site in time for the dawn lift-off.
We used the guiding services of Dimiter Georgiev of Neophron (which is affiliated to the Bulgarian Society for the Protection of Birds). We would strongly recommend him- very good up-to-date bird information and also very good on accommodation and logistics. The hotels he selected for us were good and much cheaper then those we had found from London. Contact details: http://www.neophron.com or email@example.com.
For further information from Ed Keeble, contact at firstname.lastname@example.org or at Woodgates Farm, Woodgates Lane, East Bergholt, Colchester, Essex CO7 6RE.
Flight London to Sofia, drive Sofia to Kavarna
Day at Lakes Sabla and Durankulak. Overnight in Kavarna.
Day at Lakes Sabla and Durankulak. Overnight in Varna.
Drive down to Bourgas. Day on Bourgas lakes. Drive to Karlovo (about two thirds of the way to Sofia).
Day 5: Sunday, 9th February 2003
Morning in Karlovo area. Drive to Sofia, fly to London.
The following is a selected species list, with notes. A few of the commoner species were also seen, but not noted below.
Great crested Grebe: 20-30 on Durankulak Lake.
Black-necked Grebe: seen on Lake Durankulak and Sabla Lakes, two very close feeding birds on the sea of the Durankulak campsite.
Cormorant: a few on the northern lakes and present on breeding colonies at Lake Bourgas.
Pygmy Cormorant: one at Durankulak Lake and common at Lake Bourgas.
Bittern: at Poda, 1 seen very close flopping about in the reeds, 2 more flushed in quick succession and then a pile of fresh feathers from another as we walked along the path to the locked hide.
Great White Egret: seen in small numbers only.
Grey Heron: About 10 at Bourgas Lake.
Dalmatian Pelican: parties of 8 and 2 soaring above the east end of Lake Bourgas. About 40 roosting at the west end.
Mute Swan: seen in small numbers at at Durankulak and Sabla Lakes.
Whooper Swan: seen in small parties, with about 80 feeding by the road just north of Durankulak.
White-fronted Goose: large numbers at Durankulak and Sabla Lakes. Seen leaving the roost at about 7AM and thereafter in scattered parties on the inland fields. At a guesstimate, there may have been 100,000 at the two sites.
Red-breasted Goose: good numbers at Durankulak and Sabla Lakes. Again hard to estimate total numbers, but at a guesstimate 10,000 at the two sites. Tending to leave the roost a little later than the Whitefronts and thereafter in scattered parties on the inland fields. The biggest single flock was about 2,000 birds on fields just to the north of Durankulak Lake.
Greylag Goose: present in small numbers at Durankulak and Sabla Lakes, mostly single birds or pairs.
Bean Goose: 1 at Sabla Lake.
Teal: Flock of about 100 at Bourgas. Otherwise few dabbling ducks at any of the lakes. It is a strange experience to see big numbers of geese without a horde of accompanying Wigeon.
Shelduck: About 20 at Lake Bourgas.
Tufted Duck and Pochard: Flocks of several hundreds on the lakes.
[No sign of any Ferruginous Duck, which breed at Durankulak but are scarce in the area in winter. We also missed White-headed Duck on Lake Bourgas, in part due to windy conditions and in part because we allowed ourselves to be distracted by other birding attractions. 28 were counted the following week.]
Red-breasted Merganser on Durankulak Lake and about 30 Smew there including several males. Also a few Smew seen on Sabla Lake and the Bourgas Lakes.
[No eagles seen. Spotted Eagle has wintered at Sabla in recent years but only one sighting to date in 2002/2003.]
Hen Harrier: Several seen, one male very close at Sabla.
Marsh Harrier very common at the northern lakes.
Common Buzzard: Very common on roadside trees and posts. Close views of commoner raptors were one of the highlights of the trip.
Rough-legged Buzzard: 1 at Durankulak Lake, 1 near Varna and at least 1 near Karlovo on the route back to Sofia.
Long-legged Buzzard: At least 2 at Sabla, 1 at Durankulak and 2 near Karlovo on the route back to Sofia. The birds at Karlovo were truly spectacular in bright early morning sunshine, along with a very pale Rough-legged Buzzard and several Common Buzzards.
The Karlovo site was a tip from Dimiter Georgiev. The souslik colonies here and around Sliven are excellent sites for close views of hunting raptors, including Imperial Eagle at the right time of the year.
Merlin: 1 at Bourgas Lake. Kestrel and Sparrowhawk seen.
Peregrine: 1 at Durankulak Lake.
Saker Falcon: 2 just NE of Sofia airport. This was a complete fluke. One bird flew over the car as we passed the main motorway intersection on the NE outskirts of Sofia. As we screeched to a halt we saw it flying alongside a second bird (co-operative hunting?) and briefly sparring with it. One of the two then returned and spent a quarter of an hour hunting from posts and pylons just west of the junction.
Coot: Flocks on the sea off Durankulak and at Bourgas.
Black-tailed Godwit: One with Teal at Bourgas.
Green Sandpiper: 2 in a ditch near Varna.
Little Gull: One off Durankulak. Common Gull, Black-headed Gull and Yellow-legged gull also seen.
Eagle Owl: 1 calling near Varna, watched through telescope from a respectful distance.
Syrian Woodpecker: 1 at Sabla campsite
Calandra Lark: One party seen at Sabla. Skylark common.
Great Grey Shrike: Several seen on journey to and from Sofia, none on the coast.
Rook: Large parties flighting down the coast from Romania to feed. Very few Hooded Crows seen, a few Ravens on the drive from Sofia. Magpie common and Jay seen.
Hawfinch: Seen with Chaffinch flocks on two occasions.
Corn Bunting: Very common, flocks of 50 or more and often in song.