Visit your favourite destinations
Western Europe
North America
Eastern Europe
South America
Middle East
East Indies

A Report from

Bulgaria (with extension to Evros delta) 25th February-1st March 2004,

Ed Keeble (UK)

This February 2004 trip followed a successful trip to Bulgaria for Red-breasted Geese ("RBGs" below) in early February 2003.  This report concentrates on providing up-to-date information relating to RBGs and for convenience also recaps the previous February 2003 trip.  A selective trip list is attached.

Sites for RBGs
The sites for RBGs in Bulgaria are Durankulak lake and Sabla lake, on the Black Sea coast to the north of Varna and close to the border with Romania.  These lakes are located in Dobrudja, the black soil plain which extends from north-east Bulgaria up into Romania to the Danube delta.  (For maps and pictures, see a very good German language article on RBGs in Bulgaria:

Timing for RBGs:
The RBGs arrive in Romanian Dobrudja (not the Danube delta) in October-November.  They then move down from Romania into Bulgaria under the twin influences of weather and food availability, often not arriving in any numbers until early-to-mid January, peaking in late January and then reducing in numbers quite rapidly during mid-to-late February.  Weather is a major factor, with severe and prolonged cold forcing the RBGs out (either south, or north-east into the Ukraine) and warm weather in February encouraging them north into Romania and the Ukraine. 

So it is vital to get timing right.  There is window of a few weeks between mid-January and mid-February when there is a good prospect of seeing RBGs in substantial numbers in Bulgaria. Outside that period, there may only be low numbers or possibly no RBGs at all.

There is a further factor to take into account when planning a trip, which is that the shooting season normally closes at the end of January but can be extended into early February.  The geese are, understandably, more settled once the shooting has died down and so that is a factor in favour of a trip in February, rather than late January. 

Whatever time you settle on, I would recommend checking conditions and goose numbers prior to your departure date (see Guide below) and in an exceptional year be prepared to make a last minute change to plans or even to cancel.

To reinforce these general comments:


We cancelled our February 2002 trip at the last minute as we heard that temperatures had dropped to around -10C, all of the lakes were frozen and there were no geese.


We saw about 10,000 RBGs in early February 2003, moderate numbers by Bulgarian standards, but still spectacular for a visiting birder. 

Temperatures were around freezing, but there was only the odd patch of snow and the lakes were unfrozen.  Immediately after we left, temperatures dropped towards -10C.  The geese got tamer and their numbers went up, but birding conditions (I am told) were pretty tough.  There were even 15,000 RBGs roosting on the ice on the relatively tiny Sabla Tuzla lake, just south of Sabla lake.


There were 500 RBGs on the lakes in December, 2003, rising to 35,000 in late January 2004 (representing more than three-quarters of a currently estimated world population of 40-50,000).  I had to delay until week four of February, but to everyone's surprise there were still 4,000 RBGs, despite the late date.

Temperatures in late February dipped below freezing overnight, but it was warm during the day and there was only the odd patch of snow.  However, the lakes themselves were still frozen, with only a small patch of open water which was heavily visited by drinking RBGs in the afternoon.  The geese were roosting on the sea just off Durankulak lake.

(There were about 200 Red-breasted Geese on the Evros delta in February 2004 and I gather that these left during the fourth week of February.  Based on the Bulgarian experience, I guess that was a late departure too.)

Tactics for RBGs:
In Bulgaria, the RBGs and Whitefronts roost in two or three huge flocks on Durankulak lake and Sabla lake, or on the sea off the lakes.  They leave the roost at dawn to feed on inland fields, returning to the lakes in smaller groups during the afternoon to drink and then back to the roost in the evening.  They can also temporarily drop back onto the lakes during the day if disturbed by locals, hunters or birders.

The morning lift-off of roosting geese from the lakes is not to be missed. In order to be there at dawn, it is well worth finding accommodation at Kavarna, to the north of Varna and about an hour from the lakes, or better still at Durankulak campsite, which is right on the spot. You need to be in position by about 7AM at the latest, as the Whitefronts tend to leave a little before the RBGs and the bulk of the geese have left the roost by 7:30-8AM.

At Sabla it is possible to stand right underneath the geese as they head inland from the north arm of the lake (in fact, the north arm is a separate lake).  At Durankulak, the flock can be watched from the north side of the main body of the lake and is even more impressive in terms of sheer numbers, but you are not so close to the geese and don't get quite the same overhead "roar" as at Sabla.  Having said that, it is a truly spectacular experience (sight and sound) at both sites.  In a good year, there will be 100,000+ geese (maximum recorded 250,000), with the biggest flock at Durankulak lake.

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 in 2003, we could see the head and neck of a single White-fronted Goose on a gentle ridge in a field which we knew contained several thousand Red-breasted and Whitefronts, because we had just seen them fly in.  

The pattern seems to be that in the last few weeks leading up to their return north (i.e. up to mid-Feb), the Red-breasted Geese tend to stay closer to the lakes and feed intensively on the immediately adjacent fields, especially those just to the north of Durankulak lake, either side of the road to the campsite.  In the second week of February 2003, 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.  In the fourth week of February 2004, they were a bit more settled and on occasions allowed an approach to more like 300 metres.  On both trips we discovered that they repeatedly shifted location between and within their chosen fields during the morning, but became more settled and approachable in the afternoon.

In February, 2003, 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 8 hours is nearer the mark.  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).

In February, 2004, I flew Sofia-Varna instead, which took about 1 hour.  You could see where the words "Albanian Airlines" hade been painted out on the side of the plane.  For the return, I hired a car in Varna and returned it to Sofia.

There is also the possibility of the overnight sleeper train Sofia-Varna, ruled out due to timing constraints on my trips (i.e. the need to be up at the lakes by dawn on day one) but may be worth investigation if your are planning a longer trip.

I used the guiding services of Dimiter Georgiev of Neophron (which is affiliated to the Bulgarian Society for the Protection of Birds). I would strongly recommend him- he is heavily involved in RBG conservation and so he and his colleagues can confirm goose numbers during January, in addition to providing on the spot guidance.  He is also a source of very good up-to-date information on other birding opportunities.  Neophron's services include organising car hire, hotels and internal flights and they can do a fully organised and guided trip if required.  Contact details are:  [website being updated as at May 2004] or

At the northern lakes, you have the choice between good hotels at Kavarna and the chalets at the campground at Durankulak, which are of a perfectly acceptable standard.  They have the added attraction that you may be able to see thousands of RBGs from your bedroom window, if inexplicably you chose to have a lie-in instead of going down to the lake at first light.

Other winter birding in coastal Bulgaria:
The northern lakes and Bourgas lakes are a prime winter birding sites in their own right, leaving aside the RBGs.  On my trips to date, I have left the northern lakes late afternoon and dropped down to Varna, then down to the Bourgas lakes the following day.  On a more extended trip, there are some promising forests en route from Varna to Bourgas where woodpeckers should be active in February (whether including White-backed, I am not sure).  Getting close to birds at the Bourgas lakes can be a bit of a challenge, but armed with Where to Watch Birds in Bulgaria (Peter Iankov) and/or directions from a local guide (see above), there is good birding to be had- White-headed Duck, Pygmy Cormorant, Dalmatian Pelican etc. 

From Bourgas, I dropped down into south-east Bulgaria for Imperial Eagles.  BSPB are heavily involved in conservation of this species (15 known pairs in Bulgaria and a further 10 suspected) and there are places from which astonishing views can be had without disturbance, as some breed close to villages and roads.  Local guidance is a must and if you do visit a site, don't publish its location as this will only make BSPB's wardening job harder.

To give a feel for travelling times in relation to the above itinerary, the drive from Durankulak to Varna is about 1 and a half hours; from Varna to the Bourgas lakes about 2 hours; from the Bourgas lakes to the Greek border about 3 hours. 

Extension down to Evros delta:
There have been some recent efforts to promote the Evros delta as a winter birding location  and so I won't report on it in detail here (see Richard Brooks website and links).  There is some fantastic birding to be had, with the highlight for me in late February 2004 being 5+ Spotted Eagles in Drana lagoon area and reportedly 15++ in the wider delta.  Access restrictions on the reserve could be a bit frustrating and not everybody would be comfortable having to hide their use of the long lens in the military area. 

In terms of logistics, it was surprisingly painless to add the Evros delta onto a trip to Bulgaria.  The drive from Bourgas to the Greek border at Svilengrad is easy (see above) and then it is another 2 hours on even better roads down to Alexandropoulis in Greece.  The border crossing at Svilengrad was quiet but inefficient, with a lot of paper shuffling and no English spoken.  On the Greek side, two border guards interrupted their progress through a bottle of Cutty Sark whisky to take my telescope and play around with it for quarter of an hour while attempting to write all of its details in my passport.  You need to have papers from the hire car company authorising you to take the car over the border and, of course, there is a charge from the car company for this.

Further information:
For further information contact Dimiter Georgiev at Neophron (above) or Ed Keeble:  +44 (0)7768 827385 or at Woodgates Farm, Woodgates Lane, East Bergholt, Colchester, Essex CO7 6RE.

Species list for February 2003 and February 2004  [Not including Evros delta]:

The following is a cumulative species list for the 2003 and 2004 trips (only dealing with the Bulgarian leg of the 2004 trip and not including the Evros delta).  Bear in mind that this covers only two or three days in the field in Bulgaria on each trip, with much of that devoted to the geese, rather than padding out the trip list.  Some of the commoner species are not noted below.  

Great crested Grebe:

common on unfrozen lakes

Black-necked Grebe:

common on unfrozen lakes


a few on the northern lakes and present on breeding colonies at lake Bourgas


on sea off Durankulak

Dalmatian Pelican:

early Feb 2003:  parties of 8 and 2 soaring above the east end of Bourgas lake. About 40 roosting at the west end


late Feb 2004: 10 flew north at Sabla lake, flock of 70 on Bourgas lake, viewed from north side (breeding adults reportedly already back at Lake Srebarna)

Pygmy Cormorant:

a few at Durankulak lake and common at Bourgas lake


early Feb 2003: 3 seen close at Poda (eastern section of Bourgas lake)


late February 2004: not seen

Great White Egret:.

seen in small numbers

Grey Heron:

seen in small numbers

Mute Swan:

seen in small numbers

Whooper Swan:

early February 2003: seen in small parties, with about 80 feeding by the road just north of Durankulak


late February 2004: not seen

Greylag Goose:

present in small numbers at Durankulak and Sabla lakes, mostly single birds or small groups

Bean Goose:

early February 2003: 1 at Sabla lake

White-fronted Goose:

early Feb 2003: huge numbers at Durankulak and Sabla lakes. At a guesstimate, 100,000 at the two sites


late February 2004: a few 1000s still at Durankulak, only a few individuals at Sabla

[Lesser White-fronted Goose]

[not seen- reported annually in very small numbers, hard to find amongst the huge numbers of Whitefronts; easier to see the small flock on the Evros delta, which in 2004 comprised 50 birds and is said to represent pretty much the entire non-introduced European breeding population]

Red-breasted Goose:

early Feb 2003: at a guesstimate, 10,000 at the two lakes. The biggest single flock was about 2,000 birds on fields just to the north of Durankulak lake, also a flock of about 1,000 on field just to the west of Sabla Tuzla


late Feb 2004:  single flock of just over 4,000 at Durankulak feeding on fields either side of road to campsite


small numbers


small numbers only


small numbers only; it is a strange experience for a UK birder to see big numbers of geese without a horde of accompanying Wigeon

Red-crested Pochard:

early February 2003: not seen


late February 2004:  40 on Sabla Tuzla lake- apparently an exceptional count for Bulgaria


large numbers on Bourgas lake, smaller numbers elsewhere

[Ferruginous Duck]

[not seen- a few pairs breed at Durankulak, but they are scarce in the area in winter]

Tufted Duck:

small numbers

White-headed Duck:

early February 2003: present on Bourgas lake but not seen, 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.


late February 2004: one with Pochard viewed from north side of Bourgas lake, over 100 present there earlier in February.

Red-breasted Merganser:

small numbers at Durankulak lake


early February 2003: about 30 on Durankulak lake including several males, also present Bourgas lake


late February 2004: not seen, northern lakes frozen

[Spotted Eagle]

[not seen- a returning bird has wintered at Sabla in recent years but only one sighting in 2003 and none in 2004; one in early February 2004 at Durankulak.  The Evros delta and other Greek sites are a far better bet for this species.]

Imperial Eagle:

late February 2004: one immature and two breeding pairs seen in south-east Bulgaria

White-tailed Eagle:

early February 2003:  not seen


late February 2004:  two at Durankulak, one immature and one subadult.  Seen on the ice at dawn and subsequently flushing the RBGs from the fields by the campsite.

Hen Harrier:

early February 2003:: several seen


late February 2004:  several seen, 12 left the roost at Durankulak at dawn

Marsh Harrier:


Common Buzzard:

very common on roadside trees and posts

Rough-legged Buzzard:

early February 2003: 1 at Durankulak lake, 1 near Varna and at least 1 near Karlovo on the route back to Sofia


late February 2004: not seen (2004 not a good year for Roughlegs here)

Long-legged Buzzard:

early February 2003: At least 2 at Sabla, 1 at Durankulak and 2 near Karlovo (Rozino) on the route back to Sofia.


late February 2004: not seen at northern lakes (but present); several in south-east Bulgaria and 1 near Karlovo (Rozino) en route back to Sofia


late February 2004: adult chasing juvenile, south-east Bulgaria

Sparrowhawk and Kestrel also seen


early February 2003: 1 at Bourgas lake


late February 2004: not seen


early February 2003: 1 at Durankulak lake


late February 2004: not seen

Saker Falcon:

early February 2003: 2 hunting from posts and pylons just west of the motorway junction NE of Sofia airport. This was a complete fluke;  apparently, no-one has seen them there before or since.


late February 2004: not seen. 

Saker is a very rare bird in Bulgaria and nests still get robbed- better to leave them alone here and save the species up for a trip to Hungary


Flocks on the sea off Durankulak and at Bourgas.

Black-tailed Godwit:

early February 2003:  one with Teal at Bourgas.


late February 2004:  not seen

Green Sandpiper:

early February 2003:  2 in a ditch near Varna.


late February 2004: not seen

Little Gull:

early February 2003: 1 off Durankulak.


late February 2004: 2 at Sabla

Common Gull, Black-headed Gull and Yellow-legged gull also seen

Eagle Owl:

early February 2003: 1 seen and heard calling near Varna


late February 2004:  not seen (site not visited)

Black Woodpecker:

early February 2003: not seen


late February 2004: one crossed the road between Varna and Bourgas

Syrian Woodpecker:


Calandra Lark:

common in Dobrudja in parties of up to thirty, in late February 2004 one was singing overhead as we watched RBG flock

Crested Lark



common in central and south-east Bulgaria

Great Grey Shrike:

Several seen inland, none on the coast; in 2004 a beautiful singing bird at Karlovo (Rozino)


Large parties flighting down the coast from Romania to feed

Corn Bunting:

Very common, flocks of 50 or more and often in song


Quite common


Why not send us a report, or an update to one of your current reports?