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|A Report from birdtours.co.uk|
Bulgaria, 4th - 15th May 2005,
Steve West, (Birding in Spain.com) Toni Nievas, Xavier Revés, Enric Farré, Eva Solanes, Ester Freixenet
With our group coming from Catalunya, Spain, the emphasis was on seeing as many of the breeding and migratory birds of Bulgaria as we could in 12 days (10 days birding), although without making a particular effort to see those species that we could find with relative ease in Spain. Hence the focus was a little different from that of most British birders as we made no effort to go out of our way to see birds like Wallcreeper, Griffon Vulture, Egyptian Vulture, Black Woodpecker, Eagle Owl, Herons or any of the larks. On the other hand we were interested in seeing some species that wouldn't over-motivate Brits, like Lesser Spotted Woodpecker, Lesser Whitethroat and Willow Tit!
So we aimed at timing the trip to see Bulgaria in its springtime splendour while reaching the Black Sea coast with the option of observing some migration.
As a group of friends we had previously travelled together in territory known to me - Scotland, Norfolk, the Canary Islands - but I had never been to Bulgaria before, so I was pretty sure I was going to need some help. I contacted the Bulgarian Association for Alternative Tourism via the internet and they put me on to an agency called Zig Zag, based in Sofia. We arranged the itinerary, the guides and accommodation through them, and on the whole it worked out pretty well. However, they had never dealt with birding groups before and as a result there were a few arrangements that could have been better. For example, on the first day of birding in the Rila mountain area we had to drive for two hours before reaching the site for the Hazel Grouse. We arrived there after 9 a.m. and probably as a result we failed to see the bird. Knowing that this was one of our target species in the area, along with Shore Lark, Nutcracker and Three-toed Woodpecker we felt they should have consulted the guide and found us suitable accommodation on the side of the mountain that we had to bird; as it was we spent far too long driving that day and as a result it was unnecessarily tiring.
The quality of the accommodation was rather mixed, and although it generally ranged from acceptable to good, the first hotel we stayed at on the Black Sea coast was not up to the standard we normally require. But apart from that Zigzag were friendly and helpful whenever they could be.
I later found out that specialist birding companies do of course exist in Bulgaria, and can be contacted either through www.birdwatchingbulgaria.com or Neophron Ltd at www.neophron.com
Aware of their lack of experience in the birdwatching field Zig Zag got in touch with the Bulgarian Society for the Protection of Birds to help in the organisation of guides for our trip. We had a total of four English-speaking guides: Dimiter Georgiev for the Rila mountain and Vitosha areas (day 2); Ivailo Anguelov for the Kardjali area (day 4); Stoycho Stoychev for the Sakar mountain region (day 5), and Svetoslav Spasov for the Cape Kaliakra and Durankulak areas (days 9 and 10).
Dimiter is the manager of Neophron Ltd, and we later came across him again guiding a photographer at Cape Kailiakra. We were unlucky with him, as that day we missed out on both Hazel Grouse and Shore Lark, due to no fault of his own I must add, and he was very apologetic. As compensation he provided us with very good information which enabled us to get good views of Nutcracker and Grey-headed Woodpecker early the next morning. Neophron@dir.bg
Ivailo was the youngest of our guides and as far as I could gather he usually worked in the BSPB centre at Madjarovo, taking people to see the vulture feeding station and so on. I think we were a bit of a surprise for him as we passed on the vultures but got ourselves worked up by the first Olivaceous Warbler of our trip! He didn't seem very familiar with the birds' calls and songs, but he knew the places to go and was easy-going enough to put up with our eccentricities!
Stoycho Stoychev was our guide for the next day around the Sakar mountain region. An area he obviously knows like the back of his hand, working as he does for the BSPB in the conservation of the Imperial Eagle. He was easy to get along with and thanks to his local knowledge and alertness we managed to see all the specialities of this wonderful region. He is obviously very involved in the local territory and was always ready to give us interesting information about the plight and habits of the Imperial Eagle, places, people and their relationship with birds and nature in general. The day with him was unanimously agreed to be one of the two best days of the whole trip. firstname.lastname@example.org
Svetoslav Spasov is the project manager of the Common Bird Monitoring Scheme and perhaps it's for that reason that he seemed to be the guide with the greatest knowledge of bird calls and songs. He speaks very good English and readily adapted to our more relaxed pace (having by now seen the majority of interesting species we allowed ourselves time off for shopping for souvenirs, gull photography and the inevitable coffee drinking). Neither was he offended by our pathetic attempts at calling his name, which ranged from "Stalingrad", to "Stetispav" to "Stetokov"!
No complaints about the guides, and even if you are arranging your own holiday it would at least be well worth contacting Stoycho Stoychev to organise a day's birding around the Sakar mountains - not only can he find the birds, he can also deal with the border guards, the restaurants and hoteliers.
Expect to pay between 50 and 80 leva for a day's guiding (1 Euro = 1.95 leva). And if you're happy with the service then nobody would be offended by a tip, or a contribution to the BSPB.
Bulgarian Society for the Protection of Birds: www.bspb.org
We rented a self-drive Kia Pregio 8-seater from Penguin Travel, with headquarters in Denmark. Airport delivery and pick-up was an extra 20 Euros. It was adequate for our needs, with enough space for 5 suitcases and backpacks, although it had limited powers of acceleration.
Alitalia from Barcelona to Milan, 1.5 hours stopover, and then from Milan to Sofia, arriving around 2.30 p.m. Return flight with Alitalia/Bulgarian airlines to Rome, 1 hour stopover, and then Rome to Barcelona. Stingy with the food and an awful mess as a result of making the booking by phone and not by internet.
Return flight cost approximately 320 Euros.
Apart from the guides and a couple of hotel managers/proprietors very few people spoke any English, some saying they spoke more German or French. Therefore sign language and gestures was the most effective way of shopping, asking for directions etc. But be careful with the gestures! Bear in mind that, in the same way as the Turks, Bulgarians nod their heads to say "no" ("ne") and shake their heads in an Indian fashion to say "yes" ("da")!
Road signs in the Latin alphabet were generally unusual, so our technique for coping with the Cyrillic road signs was usually to learn the first and last few letters of the town we were aiming for. In this respect it helps if you buy a map with the place names in both Latin and Cyrillic. The one I had showed the major place names in both alphabets but not the smaller ones: Bulgaria, scale 1:750 000, by Cartographia, Budapest. The map seemed accurate enough, although due to the small scale some of the smaller roads we needed to access certain sites were not drawn in.
We were very fond of the Bulgarian red wine, both Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot! The national salad "Shopska", made of cucumber, tomato and soft cheese is also excellent, and most other salads on the menu, except in the larger tourist resorts, were variations on the theme. Most meat is chicken or pork, served in breadcrumbs or with different sauces, and is tasty. Good Espresso coffee is widely available, replaced in the more rural districts by a more watered down version, but still readily drinkable. Tea lovers should ask for "Chai".
As for water we were cautious and always drank bottled mineral water, although I suspect in the mountain areas you'd be fairly safe drinking from the tap if you so desired.
Bulgarians like to start their meals by drinking a plum or grape liqueur (50º+) known as "Rakia" (or similar). Worth trying but I don't think I'll continue with the tradition at home.
We started at the deep end, driving from the airport to the centre of Sofia and then out along the southern ring road. On this route lane discipline is not really a priority as usually the lanes are not marked! Besides that you soon learn that some of the major hazards facing the unwary driver are potholes, horse-drawn carts, signs you don't understand and unpainted sleeping policemen! But don't worry too much - the good side is that except in the major cities there is very little traffic and most Bulgarians are tolerant towards dithering foreign drivers!
South of the main Sofia - Burgas route driving was a slow matter due to the poor state of the roads and the innumerable bends in the mountainous areas. In some places it took almost an hour to do little over 30 kms. North of this line however the roads were generally very good with the added advantage of very little traffic, making it possible to cover as much as 90kms an hour in some places.
General comments to be made about the places we stayed should include aspects such as room service, showers and bedclothes. It appears that you shouldn't expect your beds to be made for you if staying in any place for more than one night! Also the showers were incorporated into the bathroom in such a way that the floor was left wet, along with the sink and the toilet and any towels you may have unwittingly left lying about ie. there were no shower screens. Bedclothes were clean but only just large enough to cover the beds, with the consequent annoyance of having to put them back on the bed in the early hours of the morning.
On the positive side there was good food and drink, friendly hosts who were willing to make breakfast for early morning birders, and best of all we were usually the only clients in sight.
Days 1 and 2: Hotel Kalina, Govedartsi (near Samokov) - English spoken, excellent food, in quiet village in attractive surroundings. Rooms acceptable.
Day 3: Newly-built Bachkovo "Assumption" monastery in Kardjali. Nice grounds, rooms OK but monkish, some English spoken. Food acceptable.
Days 4 and 5: Boirana (Sakar) Hotel in Topolovgrad. Good facilities and rooms, good cheap food and friendly service. Some English spoken. Nice grounds.
Days 6 and 7: Lambovi family Hotel, Nessebar. The town of Nessebar is a world heritage site and worth having a look at if in the area. I can't say the same about the hotel, despite the proprietor's friendly attitude.
Days 8, 9 and 10: Elit Hotel, Balchik. New-looking 3-star hotel and the most modern we stayed at. It seemed we were the only clients in a place that is obviously geared up towards accommodating a good number of tourists in the high season. No English spoken. Fine, but I wonder if someone there really doesn't know what happened to my mobile phone that I'm sure I left behind in my room.
Day 11: Stomnite Guesthouse, Beli Osam near Trojan. We had problems in finding this place, mostly because our larger scale map was wrong, and when we phoned the hosts they couldn't speak enough English to direct us. Nevertheless, as we were floundering they drove out and found us and escorted us back to their beautifully renovated Bulgarian house. Then their English-speaking son arrived, and when the food and drink was placed before us we were in heaven!
BIRDS AND PLACES:
Bulgaria really is a great place to go birding. A list of the "common stuff", birds either seen on most days or else abundant in the right areas would include White Stork, Lesser Spotted Eagle, Hobby, Turtle Dove, Alpine Swift, Hoopoe, Syrian Woodpecker, Crested Lark, Red-rumped Swallow, Yellow Wagtail (feldegg race), Great Reed Warbler, Olivaceous Warbler, Red-backed Shrike (almost a plague in some places!), Woodchat Shrike, Lesser Grey Shrike, Roller, Bee-eater, Spanish Sparrow, Tree Sparrow, Hawfinch, Golden Oriole, Ortolan Bunting, Cirl Bunting and Black-headed Bunting.
With wetland birds the only species we really "missed" was the Red-necked Grebe, and we understood we were probably too late to see waders such as Red-necked Phalarope, Temminck's Stint and Marsh Sandpiper. We missed the target species on the first day in the Rila mountains basically because of logistical errors, but even then we recorded Semi-collared Flycatcher, Black and Grey-headed Woodpeckers, Willow Tit, Bullfinch, Ring Ouzel, Rock Thrush, Nutcracker, Water Pipit, Firecrest, Goldcrest, Dipper and Crossbill.
In the Eastern Rhodopes and at Sakar the birds of prey were at their best, with our personal tally for those two days amounting to 14 species. This was the only area where we recorded Egyptian and Griffon Vultures, adult Imperial Eagles, Levant Sparrowhawk, Booted Eagle and a more than probable Saker (it was either Saker or Lanner). We were unlucky with White-tailed Eagle and Chukar. It's also a great area for seeing Sombre Tit, Blue Rock Thrush, warblers and Rock Nuthatch.
In the Sakar region special mention must go the Masked Shrike - we were lucky enough to be the first group to see this fine bird in Bulgaria this year, at the same site where we managed to coax a shy Olive-tree Warbler out into the open. Isabelline wheatears were also easy to see here, coinciding with Souslik colonies (burrowing rodents that look like Prairie Dogs), in whose unoccupied burrows they make their nests. On the river at Kardjali itself we were surprised by a party of no less than 6 Black Storks, and the next morning we saw Night Heron and 3 White-winged Black Terns in the same place.
On the Black Sea coast the Pomorie saltpans provided us with excellent views of a large number and variety of waders, including flocks of Curlew Sandpipers and Little Stints, mixed in with smaller numbers of Dunlin, Kentish, Ringed and Little Ringed Plovers, Greenshank and Wood Sandpiper. We also had a very pleasant surprise in the form of two Broad-billed Sandpipers at very close range. We tried Atanasovsko Lake, which we could see had a lot of waders, but access was more difficult and so we spent little time there. In the areas of freshwater at Pomorie we also had all three marsh terns, Squacco Heron, Garganey, Little Bittern, Mute Swan and two fly-over Dalmatian Pelicans.
A single Dalmatian Pelican was also seen at leisure on the southern fringe of Mandra Lake, where the day before we heard Penduline Tit, and our brief visit to the southern edge of Burgas Lake was perfectly timed to witness the arrival of a flock of some 1,500 migratory White Pelicans.
Despite the few Pygmy Cormorants and a couple of Ferruginous Ducks that we saw, Poda was a bit of a disappointment, probably because of the noise of the traffic and the fact that the stilt hide was closed due to its unstable condition.
On the way to Balchik a couple of hours at Goritsa forest provided excellent views of Semi-collared Flycatcher, Middle-spotted Woodpecker and the only Wood Warbler of the trip. We stopped on the southern side of the Kamchia reserve, very beautiful woodland and dunes, but came up with nothing new, except for the best views of Hawfinch that most of us have ever had.
Our time to the north of Balchik was taken in a very relaxed manner, the group was slowly winding down, but luckily the unsettled weather on our first whole day in the area was excellent for observing migration, and so we spent the most of the day near Durankulak and Shabla Lakes. At Durankulak there were flocks of migrating Whiskered and Black Terns with smaller numbers of White-winged Black Terns feeding over the lake, Gull-billed Terns, more than a dozen passing Red-footed Falcons, a flock of some 25 Spoonbills in flight, 2 Collared Pratincoles, a flock of some 80 Yelkouan Shearwaters in the bay, along with a lone Arctic skua, Sandwich, Common and Little Terns. And then there were the more "usual" birds! Like about 5 Paddyfield Warblers, Pygmy Cormorants, Bearded Reedling, Savi's Warbler, Marsh Warbler, Ferruginous Ducks, Garganey, etc. A highlight of the trip greeted us at this site in the form of a stay-behind Red-breasted Goose, which along with the White-fronted Goose also present there the next day had obviously been injured by the work of a hunter's trigger finger.
There were a few waders at Shabla Lake and a Black-throated Diver on the sea. However, here, as at Durankulak, there was a lot going on among the bushes: Red-breasted Flycatchers were constantly getting in the way when searching for other passerines! We recorded a pair of Collared Flycatchers, Barred Warbler, Lesser Whitethroat, Lesser Grey Shrike, Willow Warbler and Olivaceous Warbler as flocks of Bee-eaters, Swifts, Swallows and House Martins crowded into the sky above our heads.
Cape Kaliakra was kept for the last day's full birding, and the previous day's squally weather having given way to calm, sunny skies migration had understandably become much less visible. Nevertheless we still managed to pinpoint an Icterine Warbler and several Red-footed Falcons were very obligingly perched on the telephone lines. The Kaliakra special, the Pied Wheatear could not be missed, as it is quite abundant and very approachable in this area. Shags and more (perhaps the same group as the previous day) Yelkouan Shearwaters added to the interest of this attractive area with great migrant potential. Nearby, Bolata delivered a pair of Lesser Spotted Woodpeckers, although we were too early for the Rose-coloured Starlings, not due at least until the end of the month. A return visit to Durankulak was enjoyable, but produced no new birds except for great views of a singing Marsh Warbler.
The nest day we had to make the long drive back to within easy reach of Sofia but we decided to make a diversion northwards and have a look at the world famous Srebarna Lake. What a site! It was teeming with birds: terns, nesting Glossy Ibis, Dalmatian Pelicans, Pygmy Cormorants, Ferruginous Ducks, Herons and 12 Hobbys (Hobbies?) in the air at the same time. We added Ruddy Shelduck, Kinfisher and Goshawk to the list but all too soon we had to press on with our journey. In vain we tried one last site for White-tailed Eagle, on the south bank of the Danube and then became sight-seers before reaching our accommodation at Beli Osam.
This last area has beautiful mountains and beech forests, and is reportedly a good area for breeding Red-breasted Flycatchers, but in the morning it rained quite heavily so we decided to take the major road directly to Sofia airport.
Total species recorded = 217.
Personal highlights included Eastern Imperial Eagle, Masked Shrike, Rock Nuthatch, Grey-headed Woodpecker, Middle-spotted Woodpecker, Broad-billed Sandpiper, Levant Sparrowhawk, Barred Warbler, Paddyfield Warbler, Olive-tree Warbler, Semi-collared Flycatcher, Red-breasted Flycatcher, Dalmatian Pelican, Red-breasted Goose, Nutcracker.
I had hoped to see Three-toed Woodpecker, but the guides told me that it would be better to forget about that! We were unlucky with the Hazel Grouse and Chukar, and couldn't stay at the Rock Partridge site until late enough in the day to give it a good go. Another group we met had seen 2 or 3 Pallid Harriers on migration, another claimed Finsch's Wheatear at Cape Kaliakra, and a different group had heard River Warbler
At Kamchia. Apart from that I don't think we missed much of what was going around at the time.
If going back to Bulgaria on a similar trip I would make only a few minor changes to the itinerary, perhaps by taking in the Pirin mountain area or at least staying on the Rila monastery side of the Rila mountains; if there was little hope for migration then two nights at Balchik rather than three would be enough, allowing more time to visit Srebarna. I think I would also try to get closer to Atanasovsko and not bother with Poda (no disrespect to the BSPB intended - it's just that the array of species that can be seen there are not very different from what we can see in Spain). I would certainly return to the Eastern Rhodopes and Sakar.
Note: I have not written this report as a site guide as I think that kind of thing should be left to the natives to write about. I also think that local guides are worth having if your budget will get you that far.
For comments or queries: email@example.com
Full species list (pdf 26KB)
Steve West May 2005 (Birding in Spain.com)