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

A Report from

Bulgaria 14th-19th February 2007,

Bob Swann and Andrew Ramsay

This trip was planned in autumn 2006 with the aim of visiting Bulgaria at the peak time for Red-breasted Geese and other winter visitors.

To keep costs down we wanted to use budget airlines. We flew by Wizzair from London Luton to Bucharest return. We hired a car in Bucharest from . This turned out to be a bit more expensive than we expected at 315 Euros, because they had added on an extra 120 Euros to enable us to take the car out of Romania into Bulgaria. Most car rental companies would not allow their cars to go out of Romania.

We also decided to hire a guide for two days. We contacted Dimiter Georgiev of Neophron Tours.  Neophron Tours is the tourist company of the  Bulgarian Society for the Protection of Birds (BSPB). Through the activity of its tourist company the BSPB raises funds for urgent field actions and conservation measures throughout Bulgaria. Our guide was Svetoslav Spasov, who works for BSPB and proved to be very knowledgeable about the area and its birds, as well as being very good company.

14th February. A fraught day. We were due to fly by British Airways from Inverness to Gatwick to connect with our 12.50pm Wizzair flight from Luton. Twelve hours before departure British Airways contacted us to say that this flight had been cancelled. We had to leave Tain at 1.00am and drive through the night to Aberdeen to get another BA flight to Gatwick and then the train to Luton. The Wizzair flight left Luton on time and we arrived in Bucharest at Baneasa Airport at 6.00pm. There was a bit of a delay getting the car, so we eventually left the airport at 7.30pm. We headed south through Bucharest,  following signs for Giurgiu. The junctions were not well signed and we frequently got lost. It took us over two hours to cross the city from north to south. We then headed down the E85 to Giurgiu. This road was good, though we did manage to get a puncture, which further delayed us. We got to the border at Giurgiu and paid our 6 Euro bridge tax to cross the Danube into Bulgaria. We drove into Ruse and got hopelessly lost, before eventually arriving at our hotel around midnight, 21 hours after leaving Tain.

15th February. After a good nights sleep and getting our tyre fixed we left Ruse around midday and headed south east down the E70. East of Sumen we decided to follow the old road, rather than the motorway so we could stop for birds. Field side trees held large flocks of Starlings and Goldfinches with Chaffinches, Linnet, Yellow Hammer, Corn Bunting, a few Brambling and a single Mistle Thrush. One group were dispersed by a Sparrow Hawk. We stopped in a wooded hillside by the road just east of Devnja. As well as Blue and Great Tit, we had a pair of Marsh Tit, a Eurasian Nuthatch, 2 Great Spotted Woodpecker, lots of Blackbird and Robin, but best of all excellent views of 40+ Hawfinch. We continued onto Varna and then north up the coastal road. We stopped in more woods close to Albena. Here we had 2 more Great Spotted Woodpecker, a Middle Spotted Woodpecker, Goldcrest, Wood Pigeon and another Hawfinch. At Kavarnar we met up with Svetoslav and drove on to Krapec to Vila Artea, the small family run hotel where we were to comfortably spend the next two nights. Here we also met up with Dimiter and two Finns. We enjoyed a convivial evening admiring some superb photographs taken by Markus and Jari.

 16th February. An early breakfast before driving up to the north end of Durankulak Lake. Svetoslav had received reports that the geese were feeding in fields close to the lake. It had been an exceptionally mild winter in Eastern Europe resulting in most geese wintering far further north than usual, so numbers in Bulgaria were well down on previous years. We soon found a large flock of 2000+ Greater White-fronted Geese and in amongst them 12 superb Red-breasted Geese. As we watched the geese a female Hen Harrier and Sparrow Hawk flew by, the latter flushing three Grey Partridge. The weather was not ideal, cloudy and cool with a brisk north-east wind. After watching the geese for a couple of hours we headed down to the campsite by the Black Sea. On the sea were a few Great Crested Grebes, a 100+ Common Coot and a pair of Gadwall. In the trees by the campsite we located 3 Syrian Woodpecker, a large mixed flock of Tree and House Sparrow and Collared Doves.

We then returned south to the village of Durankulak, turned left and followed a track down towards the lake and then walked out towards the observation tower. Out on the water were lots of Mute Swan, 7 Common Shelduck, a few Gadwall, Teal, Pintail, Shoveler, Common Pochard and a pair of Red-breasted Mergansers. A flock of Greater White-fronted Geese came in briefly to drink. In the reeds were lots of Reed Buntings, a Common Kingfisher and 2 Great White Egrets, whilst at least 12 Marsh Harriers hunted over the reeds.

We drove back to Krapec and visited the local restaurant for soup and omelettes and a warm up! We then proceeded onto Sabla, where in the surrounding fields were lots of Starlings, Rooks, a few Jackdaws and Hooded Crows. The Sabla Lake was full of water, though not many birds –  2 Little Grebe, 3 Pintail, a Grey Heron and our first Wren. In a roadside field we found a flock of 9 Northern Lapwing, whilst in the roadside trees were Jays and Magpies and another flock of 30+ Hawfinch, which again provided excellent close views. We continued along the road and turned right to Tuzla Lake. In the wood by the road we had a Green Woodpecker, being closely followed up the same branch by a Syrian Woodpecker. On the lake were small numbers of Mute Swan, Mallard, Teal, Shoveler, Common Pochard, Tufted Duck and a female Ferruginous Duck. A Water Rail called from the reeds. Overhead we had Sparrow Hawk, Marsh Harrier, another female Hen Harrier and a distant flock of 23 Calandra Larks.

We returned to the Sabla road and turned left down towards Cape Sabla. On the sea here were lots of Yellow-legged Gulls, Shags and a Red-throated Diver. We drove further south and just beyond Tyulenovo we walked out into an area of steppe round a ruined building. On the building we spotted a Little Owl and a pair of Common Kestrel. Out on the steppe we had Meadow Pipits, Skylarks, a single Calandra Lark, another female Hen Harrier and by the roadside Corn Buntings and a Crested lark. We followed the road to Rusalko, but did not see much more, so returned to Krapec.

17th February. A slightly later start today as we headed back to the north end of Durankulak Lake for another look at the geese. It was a grey, cloudy day with drizzle and a biting cold NNE wind. Using the car as a hide we eventually got good views of the geese. Amongst the 2000+ Greater White-fronted Geese we found at least 20 Red-breasted Geese and also had nice views of a male Hen Harrier.

We returned to the hotel, packed and headed south with Svetoslav towards Cape Kaliakra. Just west of the cape we stopped in an area of steppe. We ventured out into the cold and were rewarded with close views of a flock of 28 Calandra Larks. We headed on and turned left off the Cape road and drove down into a gorge. This gave us a little bit of shelter from the strong wind. Unfortunately the birds also appeared to be sheltering, with little moving apart from Blackbirds and Jays. Svetoslav managed, however, to locate a roosting Eagle Owl in a hole high up on the gorge side towards the west end, which gave good views. We drove on to the cape and walked along the sheltered southern side. On the sea below the cliffs were lots of Great Cormorants (looking nice with their white heads), Shags and Yellow-legged gulls. We retreated to Balgarvo where we ate and warmed up in a local restaurant. We then said goodbye to Svetoslav and headed south. Beyond Varna, just before Gorica we stopped in a nice area of woodland. It was now sleeting, though we did manage to see a Middle Spotted Woodpecker and a Eurasian Nuthatch. We continued south, through hills covered in low cloud. A brief stop at the wind swept Pomorie saltpans yielded no birds, so we continued to Bourgas and to Hotel Aqua.

18th February. Another cold cloudy day, but it was dry and the wind had dropped a bit. We headed first to Vaya Lake, scoping it from the pylons at the east side. Excellent views of Pygmy Cormorants and about 100 Dalmation Pelicans. Many adult pelicans were in breeding plumage with their orange pouch. Out on the water were flocks of Mallard, Shoveler, Teal, Common Pochard and Common Coot as well as a few Great Crested Grebes. We had close views of a male Smew. There were lots of Black-headed Gulls feeding in the shallows and amongst them at least 3 Little Gulls. Lots of Great Cormorants were sitting on rafts and pylons.  We then checked the south side of the lake by driving to and just beyond Gorno Ezerovo. Fewer birds here, but much the same species, though we heard Cetti’s Warblers singing from the reeds and saw a female Smew.

We drove back to the main road and followed it south to Mandra Lake. We took the turning to Marinka, where we turned right and followed the road till it reached a causeway. Here there were masses of Great Cormorants, a few Pygmy Cormorants, Grey Heron, two Great White Egret, lots of Teal, Common Pochard, Tufted Duck, Common Coot and a few Little Grebe. We then retraced our steps and stopped in the roadside wood just east of the causeway, where we got nice views of Lesser Spotted Woodpecker, Middle Spotted Woodpecker and a flock of Long-tailed Tits. We continued east and turned left to Tvardica. In the fields round the village were flocks of Goldfinch, Chaffinch, Yellow Hammer, Tree Sparrow and a few Brambling. We continued north seeing little bar a pair of Common Buzzard, till we reached the causeway over Mandra Lake. There were huge rafts of hundreds of Common Coot out in the water, but little else. We retraced our route back to Marinka and back to the main road and continued further south to the Chenge-Skele protected area. Here out in the bay were a few Yellow-legged Gulls, an adult Great Black-backed Gull and some Common Coot, whilst in the wood by the reeds we had close views of a Grey-headed Woodpecker.

We then started back north. First stop was the Palo visitor centre on the east side of the main road by Lake Mandra. There were lots of Great Cormorants nesting on the pylons, a few Grey Heron and flocks of Teal. The guard said the reserve was closed, so we did not walk out to the observation tower. Instead we headed on north through Bourgas to the Atanosovsko saltpans, which we scoped from the visitor centre by the roundabout just north of the town. Feeding in the shallows were big flocks of Common Shelduck, Mallard, Pintail, Teal, Shoveler, a few Wigeon and a small flock of 17 Curlew. Out on the walls of the pans were 120+ Dalmation Pelicans.

It was quite exposed to the cold NNE wind here so we decided to continue on north. North of Slancev Brjag the road rose up into the hills of Eminska Planina. The temperature was just about 0°C and the low cloud had just lifted leaving the trees covered in a thick layer of rime. We stopped at the top of the hill to take photographs. Not many birds around, bar a small flock of Greenfinch. Just south of Varna we stopped by the woods to the south of the River Kamcia. Again not a lot of birds seen, bar Blue and Great Tits, our first Short-toed Treecreepers and some Song Thrush. We then continued north to Varna and drove west along the E70.  We stopped briefly to look at the “stone forests” just west of Varna and then at a roadside café for a meal before arriving just after 9.00pm in Ruse, where we found a hotel to check into.

19th February. After breakfast we left Ruse and made our way to the border where we paid our 6 Euro bridge tax and crossed back into Romania. We then drove north up the E85 towards Bucharest. We had decided not to drive through Bucharest, as we feared we would probably get lost! Instead we used the ring road. This was well sign posted but very slow with nose to tail traffic, mainly lorries, for most of the way. At junctions no one appeared to have right of way, which often led to very long tailbacks. We only had one brief birding stop, where we crossed a large river and spotted a huge group of gulls. They were mostly Black-headed Gulls, with a few Common Gulls and Yellow-legged Gulls. It took us two and a half hours to travel the 75 km from the border to the north side of Bucharest. As we did not have to check in till 5.00pm, we drove further north up the E60 towards Ploiesti looking for some good birding spots. The woodland west of the road in the village of Saftica looked promising so we parked the car on the roadside opposite a garden centre and walked into the wood. There were lots of Great and Blue Tit, Goldcrest, Short-toed Treecreeper, Chaffinch, and a few Eurasian Nuthatch, but most interesting were the woodpeckers. We found Grey-headed, Middle Spotted, Lesser Spotted Woodpeckers, but best of all a nice male Black Woodpecker. We then drove back to the lake at the south end of the village. Not much there, bar Mallard and a Moorhen, but nice views of a Common Buzzard being mobbed by three Magpies.

We drove back south to Baneasa Airport, encountering very heavy traffic. Here we returned our hired car having done about 960km and checked in for our return Wizzair flight to London Luton.

Overall we saw 84 different species. The weather was not ideal and almost certainly resulted in us missing a few species that we should have seen. It had been one of Bulgaria’s mildest winters. This meant there were very few geese. Where we saw 20 Red-breasted Geese there had been 20,000 the previous winter. This year the birds had remained much further north than normal. We both, however, greatly enjoyed our trip. It was well worth while linking up with local guide Svetoslav Spasov of Neophron. Trying to find a small number of geese in a huge area of agricultural land could have been quite tricky. We both plan to revisit Bulgaria, but probably in mid May when it will be a bit warmer.

Bob Swann


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