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A Report from

Bulgaria, 14-18 February 2009,

Remco Hofland


Visiting Bulgaria in winter to see large numbers of Red-breasted Goose was a long-standing wish for all four of us, and this year we took the opportunity. Only a few Dutch birders make this trip, as Dutch can see Red-breasted Goose easily: about 10-12 winter every year. But these are almost invariably singles in huge flocks of Barnacle, Brent or Greater White-fronted Geese (five times, at three sites, I’ve seen two in a flock), so that one does not see the interaction between adults and juveniles, which (for me) makes watching geese a pleasure.

We were surprised what a variety of birds the Bulgarian coast offers in winter, including several that are rarely seen in The Netherlands (Long-legged Buzzard, Cirl Bunting and Calandra Lark all have less c. 3 recent records; Crested Lark and Corn Bunting are nearly extinct) or that occur far from the western part where we live and so we don’t see them often (Eagle Owl, Middle Spotted Woodpecker, Great Grey Shrike and Hawfinch). Add to that the low cost of this trip and it could well be that we’ll do this more often in the future (it's comparable to flying to W Ireland for a few days of sea-watching).

Contrary to my normal MO I did not bring a GPS or a notebook, so this tripreport was written by heart. Nevertheless it was checked by my fellow travellers and contains few mistakes (I hope). One last recommendation: hire a guide, who also acts as a driver (with a 4WD). Local knowledge of sites combined with ability to translate always adds to the number of species seen on a trip, and in Bulgaria this is done against very low extra cost. Also, a 4WD proved useful, as the geese were repeatedly feeding close to a dirt road and could only be approached using 4WD.

Guide: Dimiter Georgiev (from Neophron, see Excellent guide, very knowledgeable on sites, birds and sounds, and a good companion. Highly recommended. He drove a robust Mitsubishi Pajero and guides all over Bulgaria.

Cost: € 664 each in total. € 367 for the Malev flights Amsterdam – Budapest – Varna vice versa; € 135 for Dimiter’s guiding, stay and food, the Jeep, gas; € 60 for 4 nights’ stay at Hotel Dolphin; € 70 for all food and drinks (incl alcohol) during the 4 nights at Hotel Dolphin; € 32 for tips, coffee and various. The first day we took packed lunch (a very large, dry, non-buttered piece of bread with cheese and ham); with local soup on the other dates.

Participants: Remco Hofland, Bertus de Lange, Harm Niesen, Paul Schrijvershof from The Netherlands

Visited sites: Hotel Dolphin at Tulenovo, Durankulak Lake and surrounding fields, Shabla Lake, Black Sea coast at Durankulak campsite, Cape Kaliakra, Balchik harbour, Baltata Forest (all between Varna and the Romanian border, c. 100 km further north); Varna Lake, Pobitite Kamani Reserve

Weather: little snowfall on our first evening. Dry throughout the rest of our stay. Cold at night, well below zero C. Around -3 C during the day, but the northerly wind added to the chill-factor (we were warmly dressed however). A sunny afternoon at Baltata Forest and a sunny day around Varna Lake were very pleasant.


Sat 14 Febr

Flew from Amsterdam to Budapest and from there to Varna, with Malev Airlines. A Varna c. 15.15. Collected from the airport by Dimiter and drove c. 1 hour to Hotel Dolphin, located at the Black Sea coast, in Tulenovo, a small village about 30 km south of Durankulak Lake. A brief stop-over at Cape Kaliakra valley did not produce the hoped-for Eagle Owl (probably due to snowfall, causing limited visibility). We saw a roadside Great Grey Shrike though. Checked in at Hotel Dolphin at coastal Tulenovo village. Dinner at the hotel, including lots of wine, for today was the local wine festival.

Sun 15 Febr

All morning spent at Durankulak, watching the Greater White-fronted and Red-breasted Geese depart from the lake, only to land in the fields less than 1 km further north. Dimiter, quite unexpectedly, found a juvenile Lesser White-fronted Goose amongst the Greater White-fronts.

Part of the afternoon was spent at Karpets village, where a large flock of Rooks and a Northern ‘soemeringii’ Jackdaw were feeding on walnuts. We did not need a tape to find a confiding pair of Syrian Woodpecker in the villages’ orchards. A Little Owl on a red-tiled rooftop was there both times we drove past (and again on another day).

In late afternoon we spent an hour watching the Black Sea from Durankulak campsite, and were surprised to see a number of Yelkouan Shearwaters fly past, some quite close. The ‘desmarestii’ race of European Shag was common, while several Black-throated Loons flew past as well. If only we’d stayed a bit longer, since two British birders, who were notified of our Yelkouan Shearwater sightings, saw an adult summer Greater Black-headed (Pallas’s) Gull fly past half an hour after we left.

Mon 16 Febr

All morning spent at Durankulak, watching c. 1,100 Red-breasted Geese amongst the more plentiful Greater Whitefronts. BL (re)found a Pink-footed Goose, which had been discovered by Bulgarian birders on Febr 14 - a first for the country. Right when we were to vote on the correct ID of the eagle-shaped brown blob in a distant field, it flew off and turned out to possess a white tail (I was in favour of it being a White-tailed Eagle from the start :-).

In the afternoon we paid another visit to Cape Kaliakra valley, but again did not find the resident Eagle Owls. However, a lingering female Grey-headed Woodpecker was much appreciated, and we added a female Stonechat and Dunnock to the triplist.

Tue 17 Febr

All morning spent at Durankulak, watching the Red-breasted Geese. Afterwards we drove to the riverine Baltata Forest (a.k.a. Baltava Forest) next to the Albena complex, an old coastal Soviet retreat near Balchik (a.k.a. Belchik or Beltchik on other maps). Here, we enjoyed some sunshine, while watching several Middle Spotted Woodpeckers. Lesser Spotted Woodpecker eluded us however. A brief stop on a scrubby hillside just outside Balchik provided us with good views and photographs of trip-exclusives male Cirl Bunting and three Yellowhammers.

Had a delicious lunch at a posh-looking harbourside restaurant in Balchik. Instead of sticking around the proper harbour in the northern part of town, where we’d found two Mediterranean Gulls, we decided to drive to Shabla Lake in order to try for migrating Greater Black-headed (Pallas’s) Gull. Nothing there, however, we found fresh Otter tracks we decided to stake out. And, at dusk, 18.10, one duly wobbled past and disappeared into the Black Sea. Another excellent dinner and more wine in Hotel Dolphin in the evening.

Wed 18 Febr

Starting at Balchik’s white cliffs, we were unable to locate its Eagle Owl. Afterwards we drove to Varna Lake, where we spent a lovely sunny morning and early afternoon at a small protected wetland east of Beloslav at the southern shore, watching Pygmy Cormorants at close quarters and chasing a calling Penduline Tit in vain. A quarry called Pobitite Kamani Reserve, northwest of Beloslav (north of Varna Lake) finally yielded an Eagle Owl, while the singing Woodlarks were also much appreciated. We rounded off the trip along a small canal east of Ezerovo, north of Varna Lake, where Dimiter knew a Night Heron roost (12 birds, mostly summer-plumaged adults perching in full view), and where we also added trip-exclusive Green and Common Sandpiper.

After a late lunch in Varna we said goodbye to Dimiter and departed Varna by Malev flight at 16.10, arriving in Amsterdam at 19.30. However, not after having our appetites wet by lunchtime stories of a possible combined Ural Owl-Hazel Grouse-Capercaillie-White-backed Woodpecker-trip in central Bulgaria in mid-April…..

Recorded birds

  1. Mute Swan Cygnus olor: max 4 Durankulak
  2. Whooper Swan Cygnus cygnus: max 6 Durankulak
  3. Taiga/Tundra Bean Goose Anser fabalis/serrirostris: [H] on two dates (BL), 2-3 probables seen in flight by RH and PS, Durankulak. A local rarity.
  4. Pink-footed Goose Anser brachyrhynchus: 1 Durankulak. Found on 14th by a Bulgarian birder, refound by BL on 16th. The first record for Bulgaria. A large individual, probably a male, roughly the size of the Greater White-fronts with which it associated. I have placed two crappy digiscoped pics on
  5. Greylag Goose Anser anser rubirostris: 2 Durankulak amongst other geese
  6. Lesser White-fronted Goose Anser erythropus: 1 juv Durankulak
  7. Greater White-fronted Goose Anser albifrons: c. 10,000 Durankulak
  8. Red-breasted Goose Branta ruficollis: c. 1,350 Durankulak. Before our arrival, on Febr 14, c. 1,900 were counted. Our maximum count was c. 1,300, but this was after sev had already left to the lake for their late morning freshwater drink. Typically, the Red-breasts left Durankulak Lake later than the Greater White-fronts in early morning; both would land and graze the wheatfields only less than 1 km north of the lake. One adult was limping on its left leg, one lacked its right foot (this one would lie on the field, grazing all around). Distance to the mixed flock of Red-breasted/Greater White-fronted Geese was usually at least c. 100m, but on one occasion they neared the road to about 35m. About 10% of all birds were juveniles: these were easily recognised by paler, almost beige, upperparts, scruffy-looking sides, usually paler-red neck and breast, usually more white in the face and usually paler, dark-brown rather than black belly.
  9. Common Shelduck Tadorna tadorna: c. 40 Shabla Lake
  10. Red-crested Pochard Netta rufina: 1 female in flight, Durankulak (RH, BL)
  11. Common Pochard Aythya farina: c. 30 Durankulak
  12. Tufted Duck Aythya fuligula: 4 males, 1 female Durankulak
  13. Red-breasted Merganser Mergus serrator: 2 pairs Black Sea
  14. Gadwall Mareca strepera: 2 pairs Durankulak
  15. Eurasian Wigeon Mareca Penelope: sev Durankulak and Shabla Lake
  16. Northern Shoveler Anas clypeata: c. 50 Durankulak
  17. Mallard Anas platyrhynchos: c. 30 Durankulak
  18. Northern Pintail Anas acuta: 2 pairs Shabla Lake
  19. Common Teal Anas crecca: c. 300 Durankulak, c. 40 Shabla Lake
  20. Black-throated Loon Gavia arctica: 8 flying past, Black Sea at Durankulak campsite, 1 oiled bird on the sea in front of Hotel Dolphin
  21. Little Grebe Tachybaptus ruficollis: 9, east of Ezerovo (canal north of Varna Lake)
  22. Great Crested Grebe Podiceps cristatus: c. 20 Black Sea at Durankulak campsite
  23. Black-necked Grebe Podiceps nigricollis: c. 20 Black Sea at Durankulak campsite, 1 in the tiny harbour in front of Hotel Dolphin
  24. Yelkouan Shearwater Puffinus yelkouan: c. 25 flying past, Black Sea at Durankulak campsite (largest flock 8). According to Dimiter, there were no previous records in winter, but surely that is due to lack of observers checking the Black Sea?
  25. European Shag Stictocarbo aristotelis desmarestii: 38 past Durankulak campsite, c. 25 in front of Hotel Dolphin. Courting and collecting nesting material at Hotel Dolphin; all were in summer plumage.
  26. Great Cormorant Phalocrocorax carbo: c. 200 seen at Durankulak, some in flight
  27. Pygmy Cormorant Microcarbo pygmeus: 56 Durankulak, c. 80 Varna Lake. 1 fresh dead near the ferry crossing near Varna Lake.
  28. Black-crowned Night Heron Nycticorax nycticorax: 12 east of Ezerovo (perched in trees alongside a canal north of Varna Lake). A real need-to-know kind of spot!
  29. Great Egret Casmerodius albus: 3 Varna Lake
  30. Grey Heron Ardea cinerea: 6 Varna Lake
  31. White-tailed Eagle Haliaeetus albicilla: 1 6-yr-old with a white tail but lacking a pale head and yellow bill, on a field north of Durankulak Lake
  32. Western Marsh Harrier Circus aeruginosus: c. 30 Durankulak
  33. Hen Harrier Circus cyaneus: c. 6 Durankulak
  34. Eurasian Sparrowhawk Accipiter nisus: 3 singles
  35. Common Buzzard Buteo buteo: c. 30 seen
  36. Long-legged Buzzard Buteo rufinus: 4 seen, of which 2 roadside and singles at Cape Kaliakra and at Pobitite Kamani Reserve, northwest of Beloslav
  37. Common Kestrel Falco tinnunculus: only 1 seen, roadside
  38. Merlin Falco columbarius: 1 perched female at Durankulak campsite, attacking Western Marsh Harriers and Eurasian Magpies when it flew off
  39. [H] Water Rail Rallus aquaticus: Durankulak, Shabla and Varna Lake
  40. Common Moorhen Gallinula chloropus: 2, ferry crossing north of Varna Lake
  41. Eurasian Coot Fulica atra: sev dozens Durankulak and Varna Lake
  42. Little Stint Calidris minuta: 1 Shabla Lake
  43. Dunlin Calidris alpine: 3 Shabla Lake
  44. Ruff Philomachus pugnax: 1 Shabla Lake
  45. Common Snipe Gallinago gallinago: 2 Varna Lake
  46. Eurasian Woodcock Scolopax rusticola: 1 flushed, roadside
  47. Common Redshank Tringa tetanus: 3 Shabla Lake
  48. Green Sandpiper Tringa ochropus: 1 east of Ezerovo (canal north of Varna Lake)
  49. Common Sandpiper Actitis hypoleucos: 1 east of Ezerovo (north of Varna Lake)
  50. Mediterranean Gull Larus melanocephalus: 1 adult winter and a 2nd winter, Balchik harbour
  51. Black-headed Gull Larus ridibundus: sev dozens, esp. at Balchik harbour
  52. Mew Gull Larus canus: singles only, at Durankulak and Balchik
  53. Mediterranean Yellow-legged Gull Larus michahellis: sev dozens at coastal sites. 1 Balchik harbour all-brown juvenile, lacking a pale head and a white uppertail, probably was (just) a darker individual as mentioned in the Collins’ Field Guide.
  54. Stock Dove Columba oenas: 1 flying past, roadside
  55. Common Wood Pigeon Columba palumbus: sev Baltata riverine forest
  56. Eurasian Collared Dove Streptopelia decaocto: fairly common in villages
  57. Eurasian Eagle Owl Bubo bubo: 1 breeding female at Pobitite Kamani Reserve, northwest of Beloslav (near Varna Lake). Not seen at two other checked sites.
  58. Little Owl Athene noctua: 3 singles in three villages (one on two dates in Krapets)
  59. Long-eared Owl Asio otus: 1 roadside, early morning
  60. Short-eared Owl Asio flammeus: 1 flushed by car north of Shabla Lake, early evening
  61. Grey-headed Woodpecker Picus canus: 1 female Cape Kaliakra valley (taped in)
  62. Great Spotted Woodpecker Dendrocopos major: sev Baltata riverine forest
  63. Syrian Woodpecker Dendrocopos syriacus: 1 pair and a single, Krapets
  64. Middle Spotted Woodpecker Dendrocopos medius: 2-3 Baltata riverine forest
  65. Calandra Lark Melanocorypha calandra: sev pairs roadside, both at Durankulak and at Cape Kaliakra
  66. Crested Lark Galerida cristata: 3 roadside, 1 singing at Hotel Dolphin
  67. Wood Lark Lullula arborea: c. 6 singing at Pobitite Kamani Reserve, northwest of Beloslav (near Varna Lake)
  68. Eurasian Skylark Alauda arvensis: sev dozens seen
  69. Meadow Pipit Anthus pratensis: 2 Cape Kaliakra
  70. Water Pipit Anthus spinoletta: singles over Durankulak
  71. Winter Wren Troglodytes troglodytes: singles [H] or seen
  72. Dunnock Prunella modularis: 3 Cape Kaliakra valley
  73. European Robin Erithacus rubecula: singles at campsite, Baltata riverine forest, wetland reserve east of Beloslav (south of Varna Lake)
  74. Black Redstart Phoenicurus ochruros: single females at Balchik and Hotel Dolphin, singing male [H] at Hotel Dolphin
  75. European Stonechat Saxicola rubicola: 1 female Cape Kaliakra valley
  76. Common Blackbird Turdus merula: fairly common
  77. Fieldfare Turdus pilaris: small flocks roadside
  78. Song Thrush Turdus philomelos: singles
  79. Redwing Turdus iliacus: 1 [H] Durankulak Lake, 2 Durankulak campsite, few Baltata riverine forest
  80. Mistle Thrush Turdus viscivorus: 2 Baltata riverine forest
  81. Cetti’s Warbler Cettia cetti: [H] Durankulak and wetland reserve east of Beloslav (south of Varna Lake), 1 seen well at canal east of Ezerovo (north of Varna Lake)
  82. Moustached Warbler Acrocephalus melanopogon: 2 [H] singing (tape-triggered) and 1 briefly seen, Durankulak Lake
  83. Goldcrest Regulus regulus: 1 Cape Kaliakra valley
  84. Bearded Reedling Panurus biarmicus: few Durankulak Lake and wetland reserve east of Beloslav (south of Varna Lake)
  85. Long-tailed Tit Aegithalos caudatus: few Baltata riverine forest
  86. Blue Tit Parus caeruleus: sev Cape Kaliakra valley and in villages
  87. Great Tit Parus major: sev Cape Kaliakra valley and in villages
  88. Short-toed Treecreeper Certhia brachydactyla: 2 Baltata riverine forest
  89. [H] Eurasian Penduline Tit Remiz pendulinus: 1 wetland reserve east of Beloslav (south of Varna Lake)
  90. Great Grey Shrike Lanius excubitor: 2 singles roadside
  91. Eurasian Jay Garrulus glandarius: singles in various places
  92. Common Magpie Pica pica: fairly common
  93. Northern Jackdaw Corvus monedula soemeringii: 2 with Rooks cracking walnuts, near Krapets
  94. Rook Corvus frugilegus: c. 40 cracking walnuts, near Krapets
  95. Hooded Crow Corvus cornix: singles
  96. Common Starling Sturnus vulgaris: very small numbers
  97. House Sparrow Passer domesticus: common
  98. Eurasian Tree Sparrow Passer montanus: common
  99. Common Chaffinch Fringilla coelebs: sev dozens in various places
  100. Brambling Fringilla montifringilla: 19 on spilled sunflowerseeds along the road, singles at Durankulak campsite
  101. European Greenfinch Chloris chloris: few at Durankulak, with c. 100 at Cape Kaliakra valley
  102. European Goldfinch Carduelis carduelis: common
  103. Eurasian Siskin Carduelis spinus: 1 male at Durankulak campsite, [H]  at Baltata riverine forest
  104. Common Linnet Carduelis cannabina: singles at Durankulak Lake and Cape Kaliakra
  105. Hawfinch Coccothraustes coccothraustes: sev at a coastal campsite, in Cape Kaliakra valley and near Balchik’s white cliffs
  106. Yellowhammer Emberiza citronella: 2 ad males and a 1 1st-winter male, with 1 Cirl Bunting, at scrubby hillside near Balchik
  107. Cirl Bunting Emberiza cirlus: 1 winter-plumaged male near Balchik
  108. Common Reed Bunting Emberiza schoeniclus: singles at Durankulak, with c. 15 at Cape Kaliakra valley
  109. Corn Bunting Miliaria calandra: common, hundreds seen


Harbour Porpoise Phocoena phocoena: c. 6 past Hotel Dolphin, close inshore, early evening. Bottlenose Turciops truncatus and Short-beaked Common Dolphin Delphinus delphis also occur according to Dimiter.

Eurasian Otter Lutra lutra: 1 using its regular trail from the sand dunes to, and disappearing into, the Black Sea at Shable Lake. We’d found its (recent) tracks and decided to stake it out. It wobbled past, c. 35m from the car, at 6.10 pm (dusk).

Vole species: 1 crossing the road, in late afternoon

21 February 2009
Remco Hofland
The Netherlands


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