Black Sea Coast and Rhodope Mountains
Day 3; Sat. 21 April. A clear morning, warm and sunny with just a breeze. Pre-breakfasters saw a Nightingale a short way from the hotel. Breakfast at 08:30 was followed by departure at 09:20. Lake Durankulak to the north was our destination, approached from the coast. Skirting the lake and peripheral reedbeds Purple Herons made an early appearance, as did two striking Citrine Wagtails. On crossing arable fields, some recently ploughed while others still contained last season's stubble, larks dominated the scene and the appearance of raptors kept us attentive. Marsh Harriers and the occasional Red-footed Falcon showed as expected, while a female Pallid Harrier (ID'd by well-defined pale neck collar) was a somewhat more exclusive sighting. The next raptor to appear, initially called (by DK) to be a Lesser Spotted Eagle, was, on closer approach, agreed by both leaders to be too broad-winged for a LSE. This, however, is where agreement terminated, with DK firm of the opinion that it was the very similar but larger Greater Spotted Eagle, while Pavel favoured the idea that it was a rare Steppe Eagle (see photograph). To Pavel's great delight we also came on a Great Snipe squatting in the stubble. It allowed us to approach remarkably close without taking off, enabling us to discuss its diagnostic features and providing Pavel with a rare photographic opportunity. The fields also yielded several eye-catching wild flowers, including both red and yellow-flowered species of adonis.
Late morning we visited Branta Conservation centre with its commanding overview of Lake Durankulak, from which a first Long-legged Buzzard was seen. This was followed by a delicious fish soup lunch at a nearby fish restaurant on the banks of the lake - two Kingfishers having been seen from the approach track.
The northern aspect of the lake was next visited in search of a Paddyfield Warbler, in the absence of which we saw Reed and Marsh Warblers and heard a Moustached Warbler singing. Large passing flights of Pygmy Cormorants and Glossy Ibises were undoubtedly the star events of the location.
Steppe habitats were next on the agenda, starting with a visit to Yailata just south of Shabla. Here we walked down to the ruins of a Byzantine fortification just above the sea, following a descending path lined by stately Yellow Asphodels. Wild flowers were of principal interest there being a great many species producing a most colourful show. Various wild peas, vetches and other legumes dominated, with the first Broad-leaved Peonies starting to open. Back up on the steppe we found an attractive dwarf iris manifesting in blue, purple and yellow forms.
Onwards across the steppe to Kaliakra we paused to look at a Redstart and Collared Flycatcher in a patch of scrubby cover, then a Pied Wheatear perched atop a thorn bush - presenting a marvellous view being highlighted by the late afternoon sun. Good views of a perched Long-legged Buzzard were also enjoyed; male and female Montagu's Harriers were then spotted while quartering the ground for small rodents (i.e. the harriers were quartering the ground for small rodents - not the group!). Towards the cape a last wild flower stop yielded fabulous specimens of the stunning Narrow-leaved Peony.
It was quite cold at Cape Kaliakra, where we walked out to the point via a site of major archaeological ruins - Harbour Porpoise (Black Sea subspecies Phocoena p. relicta), Black-throated Diver, Black-necked Grebe and Mediterranean Gull seen from the cliff tops. Around the headland there were many Cormorants and Shags (Black Sea subspecies Phalacrocorax aristotelis desmarestii), lots of Alpine Swifts careered overhead, Chiffchaffs flitted through hillside cover and a second Pied Wheatear was seen on a wall of the ruins.
Leaving the cape at the height of a beautiful sunset we made the short journey to a gorge where crepuscular birdlife was targeted. In the failing light ponds surrounded by dense cover were studied, soon producing clear but limited views of a Little Crake weaving in and out of reeds by the far water margin. Stephen then brought our attention to a large bird perched in silhouette on the horizon. It was an Eagle Owl - one of the most sought after European birds. There was sufficient light that, through the scopes, its plumage detail remained clearly discernible. The setting could not have been bettered for viewing this magnificent individual, perched in statuesque manner as it surveyed the gorge below. The great bird eventually took to the wing and presented us with an excellent flight profile, finally departing the scene to hunt the steppe above.
We were back at the hotel at 21:00 after a rather long and tiring day.
Day 4; Sun. 22 April. Another mild and clear morning, with a strong onshore wind. Flights of Mediterranean Gulls, four Squacco Herons and a flock of Levantine Shearwaters were seen from the hotel front first thing. 08:00 breakfast preceded loading of baggage into the 4WD vehicle and farewell to Hotel Krapetz at 09:30.
Our first stop was along a spur track towards coastal cliffs to look for Finsch's Wheatear, taking a very nice walk through hilly terrain where Woodlarks and Whitethroats sang all around, and wild flowers inevitably seized our attention. Small flotillas of Great Crested and Black-necked Grebes were seen on the sea, while Yellow-legged and Caspian Gulls (michahellis) drifted close by along the cliff tops. With the group spread out across the area it was Stephen and DK who happened to be in the right place when a male Finsch's Wheatear flew close by but, unfortunately, failed to reappear for the rest of the group.
The busy conurbation of Varna (coffee stop at filling station) with its austere soviet-built apartment blocks then had to be negotiated on our way south to the next stop at Kamchia Reserve, a large tract of alluvial forest along the banks of the Kamchia River. A short walk from the main trunk road served up our first Short-toed Treecreeper, a more prolonged exploration of the southern aspect - entering along a ride flanked by a rich understorey beneath mature broad-leaved trees - produced Blackcaps, Hawfinches and a Black Woodpecker (lured in with a recording). This wonderful habitat was the haunt of Semi-collared Flycatcher, which was not seen, but really good viewing of a roadside Lesser Spotted Woodpecker more than compensated. A Golden Oriole was heard, while Wood White, Speckled Wood and Orange Tip butterflies were of incidental interest.
Continuing south we passed through wooded hills where a Short-toed Eagle was a notable sighting. Lunch was taken at a roadside restaurant, where a Nuthatch and Greater Spotted Woodpecker appeared close by our table. During a productive walk through surrounding open oak woods we then added Spotted Flycatcher and, more significant, a Semi-collared Flycatcher to the tally. The latter, a young male, sang from various points above a nest box, which it occasionally visited. Chattering calls up in the forest canopy then alerted us to a Middle Spotted Woodpecker, which Pavel lured in for closer viewing courtesy of a recording. Deeper into the wood a Grey-headed Woodpecker called, similarly lured in for close observation.
Our route duly emerged at a high overview of Sunny Beach coastal resort and the ancient town of Nessebar. Here we pulled in to make a short exploration of Sombre Tit habitat. A cold wind had a subduing effect of birdlife; just DK briefly spotted our target bird. Hawfinches and a Turtle Dove were seen.
After a coffee stop at the location we took a back-roads rural route to Pomorie, seeing a pair of Long-legged Buzzards and briefly glimpsing two Ortolan Buntings. Hotel Byalata Kashta, our base for the next three nights, was reached at 19:30.
Day 5; Mon. 23 April. Harbour Porpoise and Gull-billed Tern were spotted from the hotel front before breakfast at 08:00.
At 09:00 we headed for the salinas (salt pans) by Pomorie where large numbers of Ruffs were the predominant waders. Black-winged Stilts and Avocets were well represented, with a scattering of Redshanks, Marsh and Wood Sandpipers, plus two Spotted Redshanks (one in breeding plumage), Wood Sandpipers and Kentish Plovers, also a single Ringed Plover. Little Egret, Squacco Heron, Shelduck, Garganey and Gadwall were also present.
Nearby Lake Atanasovo was next on the agenda, reached along a dirt track where we parked in the shade of tall willows. The calls of Penduline Tits were immediately heard, two pairs duly appearing in low shrubby thickets - excellent viewing followed. A first Willow Warbler was heard and then seen, and DK and Stephen accidentally flushed a Water Rail. Taking a walk along a track bordered by lofty reeds there was more of the regular fare to be seen, but the targeted Stone Curlews on open dry ground beyond the reeds were not in evidence.
Onwards through the bustling city of Burgas we passed Lake Vaya with its collapsed pylons, resulting from corrosion caused by Cormorant droppings. At reed-fringed lagoons attached to Lake Mandra a few kms. south, two Dalmatian Pelicans on a pontoon were the main feature. Alepou marsh wetland was our next stop, where Marsh Harriers quartered reedbeds and Pygmy Cormorants again showed. From dunes opposite two Black-throated Divers (one in breeding plumage) were seen on the sea, also flotillas of Levantine Shearwater.
Our route progressed along the Ropotamo River and into the oak-clad Strandja Mountains, crossing a river on which a Red-necked Grebe was spotted. We pulled off the road for lunch overlooking a valley freshly green from emergent oak foliage, seeing a Woodchat Shrike atop a nearby bush while Hawfinches 'ticked' from trees to our rear. Common Blue and Lesser Fiery Copper were two butterflies observed.
Our journey eventually led to the Turkish border zone where, after negotiating a checkpoint, we looked (without success) for White-backed Woodpeckers in Oriental Beech-dominant forest. Flora of the understorey included Rhododendron, Laurel, Yellow Comfrey and an extremely tall bugle. An unexpected item was a Semi-collared Flycatcher, a mature adult male much more clearly marked than yesterday’s specimen. We finally reached Kosti, a typical old and characterful rural village, where we turned around and headed back for Pomorie.
A riverside Thrush Nightingale was briefly seen en route to the Lake Mandra lagoons, by which we made a final stop to check out a heron colony in tall reedbeds. All breeding species apart from Purple Heron were seen, Night Heron being new for the tour checklist. As it was by now approaching sunset, Cormorants had arrived to amass by their nests on surrounding pylons. Back at the hotel for 19:40, the day having remained bright and warm throughout.
Day 6; Tue. 24 April. Breakfast at 07:45 preceded departure and farewell to Hotel Byalata Kashta at 08:50, the morning warm, sunny and windless. First checking the locations of local ponds that normally attract Slender-billed Gulls, we discovered unfettered urban development to have taken over the sites. Passing by Lake Vaya we stopped to continue our search for Slender-billed Gulls, a distant 'take-the-guide's-word-for-it' individual occurring among Black-headed Gulls. Another Dalmatian Pelican was also seen. Continuing through Burgas a number of Double-breasted Eyecatchers proved difficult to ignore! At the far end of Lake Mandra a large number of migrant White Storks foraged in a field.
Heading up into the mountains of Strandja we again reached zones of oak-dominant forest where a Black Kite appeared above the road. On reaching semi-open country with scattered bushes Ortolan Buntings were seen and DK spotted a Jackal disappearing at the top of a field. Alan then spotted another Jackal cross the road ahead, which we were unable to relocate but enjoyed excellent views of a Hobby circling above its nest. Towards midday we progressed from Strandja into the Sakar mountain area and made a roadside stop to check an interesting-looking area of orchards and scrubby thickets, where Hawfinches were again seen and a Golden Oriole sang (seen by DK). Further on a small roadside passerine, initially called by DK to be a possible Sardinian Warbler, turned out to be a Sombre Tit. We stopped to view the bird, Stephen then spotting a Jackal running up a flanking slope. The animal looked very fit and still sported its thick winter pelage. It paused in silhouette on the ridge, presenting us with an absolutely fantastic view. Serendipity persisted when, on the next high point along, two soaring raptors were quickly confirmed to be Honey Buzzards (flat-winged flight). On stopping a few kms. further along the route a Black Stork soared over the location, a soaring Goshawk then being spotted.
At 14:15 we stopped for lunch in an area where Imperial Eagles often hunt. It was by this time quite hot and butterflies were active: Red Admiral, Map Butterfly, Yellow-banded Skipper, Common Blue, Small Heath, Fenton's Wood White and Lesser Fiery Copper. Although well placed to observe eagle activity nothing was seen, probably owing to the time of day.
Towards 16:00 we were on our way to the Eastern Rhodopes, travelling through mountainous areas where towering vertical rock faces, lofty crags and deep gorges featured. Pavel stopped frequently to listen for Eastern Bonelli's Warbler, eventually hearing one sing from roadside cover during the descent towards Madjarovo. Although we could hear its distinctive trill the bird remained unseen except by Pavel. From the same spot we saw one or two Griffon Vultures circling above a crag, soon joined by a medium-sized eagle that provoked another raptor ID debate between the two leaders - DK identifying it as a Short-toed Eagle while Pavel insisted it was a buzzard-sized Booted Eagle. Pavel's identification was concluded to be correct. Just before the town we travelled along a spur road to look for Rock Thrush and Blue Rock Thrush, seeing at least six of the latter during a walk. The walk also produced a very nice Rock Bunting and Black-eared Wheatear, while Red-rumped Swallows and Crag Martins wheeled about overhead. In addition to several Griffon Vultures above the flanking ridge two very attractive Egyptian Vultures appeared, also a Short-toed Eagle. Shortly after this excellent finale we arrived at Madjarovo Vulture Centre (19:00), our exceedingly comfortable and well located accommodation for the night.
Following an excellent meal on the patio, while serenaded by Nightingales, we retreated to the dining room to address the checklist - only to be called back out to hear a Scops Owl calling.
Day 7; Wed. 25 April. Local pre-breakfast exploration produced sightings of Nightingale, Cirl Bunting, Woodlark and Egyptian Vulture, while a Jackal was heard howling. Our 07:00 breakfast was late arriving but we nevertheless managed to be on our way to the Western Rhodopes by 07:40. The morning was initially cold but very clear and still, gradually heating up as the day progressed.
A first stop was made by a dam close to a Bonelli's Eagle nesting territory, where a Sombre Tit was the only item of bird interest. Just before 10:00 we reached the location of a vulture feeding station (vulture restaurant) and walked up to an overview of the site, where about 50 Griffon plus a couple of Egyptian Vultures were gathered around a banquet of abattoir offal. Birds would periodically depart the scene while others descended from the sky, 'undercarriage' lowered for the final descent. This, we were informed by the local expert, was a change of shift, whereby incubating females were relieved by their partners so that they could in turn partake in the feast. Two rather grey-coloured Foxes frequently arrived to feed, and we kept an eye on open ground beyond in hopes of sighting one of the Wolves that occasionally turn up - alas not on this occasion. A Black Kite also attended the site.
Continuing through the captivating scenery of the Eastern Rhodopes we made several stops in search of Rock Nuthatches, seeing more Blue Rock Thrushes, Black-eared Wheatears, and a very handsome Roller spotted by Alan. Lunch was taken in parkland at the fringe of a large town (Krumovgrad) where, at an open-air café, we ate copious quantities of whitebait and chips while surrounded by a feeding flock of Double-breasted Eyecatchers with their offspring.
Following lunch our quest for Rock Nuthatch led along a spur road renowned for Mediterranean warblers. Again we drew a blank for nuthatches, but had compensating views of Barred and Eastern Orphean Warblers.
The Eastern Rhodopes gradually gave way to the Western Rhodopes, where forests of pine and spruce increasingly appeared in the landscape. The temperature was decidedly cooler and, at higher levels beyond the city of Smoljan, remnant snow patches occurred by the roadside. Rivers were faster flowing, Stephen spotting a first Dipper from the vehicle – Rock Bunting and Grey Wagtail also seen.
Just before reaching Devin - our next accommodation base - at 18:00, we met up with local ranger Vlado, transferring into his Lada Niva for the arduous ascent up deeply pitted tracks to a subalpine area (1150 metres altitude) where our scheduled Brown Bear watch would take place. Bullfinch and Yellowhammer were seen from the vehicle. During a walk of several hundred metres to an observation hide (constructed in pine trees) we were shown Wolf scats (droppings). Margaret and DK also saw Common Crossbills. We remained in the hide from 19:10 until 21:00, glimpsing a Fox and hearing the sounds of crepuscular wildlife activity: Roe Deer barking, Wild Boar grunting, Tawny Owl hooting and Woodcock roding. Our bear failed to show and, although the site had been regularly baited since January, an uncharacteristically mild winter had seemingly left the animals with ample natural forage such that their visits had become irregular. Although a great disappointment, this having been billed as a top event of the tour experience, it was an exceedingly worthwhile location to visit - especially on this perfectly clear moonlit and windless evening. Our exceedingly comfortable guesthouse accommodation in Devin was reached at 22:00, where we enjoyed the most appetising meals of the tour courtesy of Vlado's wife Vesca.