Julian Sykes Wildlife Holidays

Bulgaria - Black Sea Migration

24th Aug - 2nd Sept 2009 

Trip report by John Moon

Monday Aug 24th :- The party met at Gatwick Airport and the scheduled flight to Varna Airport arrived on time. We were met by our Bulgarian guide for the trip, Dr Petar Iankov. We loaded the minibus and headed across the city to our hotel for the night. Bizarrely the large screen TV by the pool had Liverpool v Aston Villa showing.

Tuesday Aug 25th :- When we awoke we found the hotel was close to the Black Sea and had wonderful views of the early morning sunrise. The birding, of course started from the balcony whilst getting ready for breakfast. The small grounds provided the first taste of some of the common birds of the trip, Golden Oriole, Red-backed Shrike, Lesser Whitethroat and many hirundines. Chris and John were lucky enough to have a Levant Sparrowhawk chasing a Hooded Crow close by their balcony. After breakfast we were on our way north to Coastal Dobrudja with the road hugging the Black Sea. The first stop on the journey was at a resort area known as White Lagoon. Here we found both Levant Sparrowhawk and Sparrowhawk hunting the cliff face and several Alpine Swifts and Red-rumped Swallows among the many hirundines. Petar soon showed his birdwatching skills and local knowledge by locating a sleeping Eagle Owl under a bush. The journey continued with a few impromptu stops for notable birds such as Roller, Lesser Grey Shrike and Whinchat. A longer stop was made at the outskirts of Tyulenovo in area of dry open country, farmland and some small bushes. Here we found Hoopoe, Corn Bunting, Lesser Grey Shrike, Red-backed Shrike, Yellow Wagtail and Long-legged Buzzard. However the find of the stop was an Icterine Warbler feeding in the roadside vegetation. It was now lunchtime and we at our hotel, the Hotel Dolphin in the small village of Tyulenovo, for the next 3 nights. It was a small and comfortable hotel overlooking the Black Sea just 50m from the shore with great views from the balcony. After lunch we took a short siesta and had a balcony seawatch finding Arctic Skua, Little & Mediterranean Gulls. Petar then decided to take us to Lake Shabla Tuzla, a short journey north. This is a small shallow lake with plenty of exposed mud, which the locals smear all over themselves due to its “healing properties”. On arriving at a suitable viewpoint there were so many waders and ducks that it was difficult to know where to start with everyone calling out their sightings. However we soon calmed down to a more measured approach with everyone seeing the major finds of Marsh & Broad-billed Sandpipers. We met a group of birdwatchers from Doncaster Bird Club and exchanged notes before moving to a better viewpoint. At the evening log we agreed the wader count : 6 Oystercatcher, 2 Avocet, 2 Kentish Plover, Ringed & Little Ringed Plovers, 4 Grey Plover, 10+ Little Stint,  1 Temminck’s Stint, Dunlin, 2 Sanderling, 20+ Curlew Sandpiper, 35 Broad-billed Sandpiper, Ruff, 1 Curlew, Common Redshank, 6 Marsh Sandpiper, 20+ Wood Sandpiper and a Common Sandpiper, All this was accompanied by fly-through Osprey, Marsh Harrier, 10 Garganey and other ducks and gulls. To end the day we flushed 2 Quail on the way back to the vehicle. A fantastic day to start the trip.

Wednesday Aug 26th :- The previous night we had decided on a pre-breakfast trip to the outskirts of Tyulenovo to the area where we had visited yesterday. However before we had even left the room Chris & I had a large falcon chasing migrants over the sea, which was confirmed by Jules as an Eleanora's Falcon. Then while we were gathering at the vehicle Petar spotted a very confiding male Pied Wheatear, which the group we able to photograph and then a Syrian Woodpecker appeared on some nearby dead trees. What a start. Eventually go to the edge of the village the birds continued thick and fast. Another Syrian Woodpecker and the usual throng of Red-backed Shrikes, Golden Orioles and Bee-eaters were much in evidence. On some disused oil tanks we founds Crested Larks and Tawny Pipits and then behind them a Red-footed Falcon and a Lesser Grey Shrike closer than the previous ones. We also had our first good view of the Black-headed Wagtail amongst the daily passage of Yellow Wagtails. Among the roadside bushes we found some warblers and among them Jules and Petar we able to show us some of the finer points of identifying a juvenile Barred Warbler. We returned for breakfast on the patio but this was interrupted by a raptor low overhead. It turned out to be a juvenile Pallid Harrier - simply fantastic. After breakfast the plan was to head south via steppe land to huge cliffs of Cape Kaliakra and then the Bolata Valley. We stopped on some steppe around Rusalka and walked around finding a Heerman's Tortoise and a Common Wall Lizard. We also found new birds for the trip namely 4 Stone Curlew and a Short-toed Lark. Another stop around the wind turbines before the Cape was initially unsuccessful but as we returned to the vehicle Petar found his target of an Isabelline Wheatear. On to Cape Kaliakra where there were several Pied Wheatear in a range of plumages. At the end of the peninsular lunch was taken in the shade, with a cold beer being a very welcome addition to the day. It was fascinating to watch the hundreds of Swallows and House Martins around the restaurant resting on the trees and cliff face. At sea we saw Bottle nose Dolphins, Mediterranean Shag and several terns, which were mostly Sandwich Terns but also Common Terns and a single Black Tern. Refreshed we moved on to Bolata Valley, a cliff lined valley with a mixture of reed bed, bushes, dead trees and grape vines. We had great views of a Lesser Spotted Woodpecker  searching for food in the dead trees. Flying around along the usual mass of hirundines and Bee-eaters and a few Purple Herons were seen with their commoner cousins - Grey Heron. A small bird popped on to the road and with patience was most obliging standing in the open – a Sprosser (or Thrush Nightingale). We spent some time searching the lush vegetation and found most of the common warblers. On the return to Tyulenovo we stopped at another area of steppe outside the village of Balgarevo. Here we had further views of Isabelline & Northern Wheatears, Turtle Dove, a fly past Hobby and Skylarks, Short-toed Larks & Calandra Larks. It had been a long hot day with another long cool beer and dinner being most welcome.

Thursday Aug 27th :- After a 7.30am breakfast we headed north to Durankulak Lake. We started at the eastern side with its sand dunes on the shore of the Black Sea with the lake itself being freshwater with large reed beds and little in the way of open water. We were off to a good start with a Hobby and a couple of Caspian Terns. We soon increased the raptors count with Common & Steppe Buzzards, Osprey, Marsh Harriers and Kestrel. Later we had Hen Harriers, Long-legged Buzzard and a young Red-footed Falcon in off the sea. A Pied Wheatear was entertaining in the dunes favouring a car wing mirror as a perch. Given the time of year the reed beds were fairly quiet but we managed to see Eurasian Reed & Great Reed Warblers along with Bearded Tits. The wetlands also gave us our first sight of Pygmy Cormorants, Kingfisher and Great White Egret, plus off shore we found Great Crested & Black-necked Grebes as well lots of Mediterranean Gulls. While have a refreshing cool drink we reflected any UK beach with this weather would be crowded and not almost deserted with only a 100 or so sun worshippers. Returning to the minibus we found we were blocked in and had to “bounce” a vehicle to move on. We next moved to a track on the west side of the lake and after stopping to view the passerines in the vegetation decided to return to the hotel for lunch and visit again later. We duly returned refreshed after a siesta. Among the bushes we found a Wryneck along with the many Lesser Whitethroats, and a few Spanish Sparrows amongst the House Sparrows. Viewing the lake from the west we found a few Whiskered Terns, Purple Herons and  Ferruginous Duck. We now decided to return to Shabla Tuzla Lake for a further look at the waders. We were well rewarded with the same waders as before but additionally Greenshanks, a couple of Black-winged Stilts, and a record count for Bulgaria of 45+ Broad-billed Sandpipers. At one point the Greenshank gave a very comparison feeding next to a Marsh Sandpiper. Additionally a small flock of Grey Partridge and 2 Water Rails were added to our impressive species list.

Friday Aug 28th :- Today we were travelling south to a small town, Sarafovo near Bourgas which was to be our base for the rest of the trip. Petar was taking advantage of the journey to stop at a few places en route and arrive in the early evening. As always seemed the case the journey was off to a brilliant start when some harriers we spotted low over the fields. It turned out that as well as Marsh Harriers there was a male and juvenile Montagu’s Harrier. We had now seen the full set of European harriers just after a few days!. A little further down the road and we had another impromptu stop as two dots in the distance came closer and revealed themselves as Lesser Spotted Eagles eventually going low overhead giving most of us a great first view of this magnificent raptor. Naturally that was not all with Levant’s Sparrowhawk, Common Buzzard, Rollers, Alpine & Common Swift and the continuing passage of Yellow Wagtails.
After a quick coffee stop in Varna we headed on to a hillside giving magnificent views over Lake Yatata. Gadwall was the only new bird but we had also found Caspian Terns, Pygmy Cormorants, Little Egrets, Purple Heron and another very confiding Lesser Spotted Woodpecker. We next stopped at the mouth of the Kamchia River at a small resort between the woodland and the beach. A walk round before lunch produced Marsh Tit, Short-toed Treecreeper and a wonderful photo opportunity of confiding Nuthatches taking food from one of the boat operators. Wendy & Michel lagging behind the rest of the party to take photos also managed to find a Red-breasted Flycatcher. Refreshed by our lunch we next stop at Goritza Forest, a wonderful old oak woodland. Sadly we were too late in the season for Semi-collared Flycatchers, but we were not disappointed. Petar managed to entice out a Grey-headed Woodpecker, and there was good flock of tits, including Long-tailed Tits, which made us feel quite at home and butterflies included Lattice Brown, Silver wash Fritillary, Gatekeeper and Painted Lady. The star of the show was a Middle-spotted Woodpecker which showed extremely well. Time was now getting on and we were a little tired and weary so we headed to the Hotel Mirana in Sarafovo to freshen up before dinner. The rooms were very spacious and although the views did not compare with our previous hotel we were in fact only 100 yards from the Black Sea. At dinner we soon appreciated a Petar’s “special relationship” as a regular visitor with the staff and we could not have been made more welcome or feel more at home.

Saturday Aug 29th :- After a pre-breakfast walk the plan for the day was to explore the north side of Lake Atanasovo then visiting the migratory watchpoint. After lunch we were to visit the eastern side of Lake Vaya before the southern side of Lake Atanasovo. The morning walk produced several Black-necked Grebes offshore and in the bushes we searched for warblers, finding Willow Warblers, Common Whitethroat & Lesser Whitethroat, Eurasian Reed & Great Reed Warblers. After breakfast we set out and stop at an old water filled clay pit. 3 Long-legged Buzzards and Marsh Harriers we flying low and we also found 2 Green Sandpipers. There was some passage in the distance and we were able to identify a Short-toed Eagle. We moved on to another small reed lined lake and some very careful searching eventually turned up a Squacco Heron, a couple of Little Bitterns, Water Rail and Kingfisher. A clamber over of sluice gate gave views of the main lake with Great White Egret, Greenshank and Wood Sandpiper, and in the far distance some unindentifiable pelicans. Next we moved on to the migratory watchpoint where things were a little slow due to the continuing good weather both herer and further north. However we eventually got a taste of migration with huge flocks of White Storks appearing like clouds of midges in the distance. All of were aghast at the site of a line of storks low over Bourgas Airport which took several minutes to pass. After a break for lunch we headed to the eastern shore of Lake Vaya. Here we had our first views of White Pelicans with around 1500 birds, but none of us were satisfied with our view of Dalmatian Pelican. Additionally a Squacco Heron and Little Bittern provided a wonderful photo opportunity. The last stop of the day was on the southern side of Lake Atanasovo. Here there were many resting birds with 45 Spoonbills doing what Spoonbills do best - sleeping!. There were also many gulls, 41 Black-tailed Godwits, Ruff, Avocet, Black-winged Stilts. An early return to the hotel enabled those who wanted a swim in the pool before evening meal.

Sunday Aug 30th :- Today’s optional early morning walk produced much the same birds as the previous day but with a good sighting of a Thrush Nightingale sitting in the early morning sun. Today Jules and Petar had decided to break away from previous trips by trying a trip inland to the area around Karnobat that could potentially have raptors and the Tzerkovski Reservoir, next to the Vodka factory. The journey had the obligatory stop for a Lesser Spotted Eagle and our only Ravens of the trip. We stopped at a promising looking area finding Crested Larks and Bee-eaters on the road and Common Buzzards over the hillside. There were also several Northern Wheatears and we had a great view of a Tawny Pipit. Moving on the reservoir we initially found a solitary Spoonbill, 40 White Pelicans and Sedge Warblers. Careful scrutiny of the muddy edges revealed Curlew, Snipe, Ruff, Green & Wood Sandpipers. Some raptors began showing in the distance notably 2 more Lesser Spotted Eagles and quite uUnexpectedly we also found 4 Black Storks migrating south. With a small migration looking possible we headed to our original hillside but unfortunately nothing materialised. However we did have further attempts to photograph Bee-eaters and we found a couple of Woodchat Shrikes. Starting to move off a Short-toed Eagle suddenly appeared a short range only to be joined by 2 others. Lunch beckoned and Petar then decided to take us to Lake Mandra with the first stop being at an area he called the Pig Farm. As we stepped out of the minibus a raptor was spotted perched on a pylon. It turned out to be a Short-toed Eagle and we had a great scoped view of it diagnostic head shape. Attention then turned to the lake and we approach with caution trying to get a decent view of the shoreline above the vegetation. Michael alerted us to a raptor flying over the water that was unmistakably an adult White-tailed Eagle carrying food. Its size became apparent when it landed in a dead tree on the far side of the lake and was mobbed a Magpie which appeared tiny in comparison. The other notable bird was a couple of Collared Pratincoles which rose from the shore and flew over our heads before settling down again. Next we moved on to the Izvorska River where it joined Lake Mandra. Here there was some open water, mud, and reed beds. We found Glossy Ibis, Pygmy Cormorants, Little Grebes, Spotted Redshanks, Wood Sandpipers, Black-winged Stilts, Great White Egret and a fly over Lesser Spotted Eagle. Chris and John watched a Grass Snake eating a fish which improbably large for it to digest but of course it managed.

Monday Aug 31st :- Today was set aside for visiting Pomorie Lake and saltpans. We started by the saltpans by the Salt Museum, where there were locals caking themselves in the mud. A good selection of birds were present including 2 Whimbrel, 6 Oystercatchers, and a Peregrine flew by with a prey in its talons, and. On the saltpans were 100's of Little Gulls, both adults & 1st winter birds and a few Black-winged Stilts. On the posts around the lake there were many Sandwich & Common Terns and gulls, including many Mediterranean Gulls. A Kingfisher came round to fish from the posts and provided a wonderful opportunity for the photographers. We moved further down the lake and had a flock of 84 Honey Buzzards fly through. In a reed bed a few Penduline Tits called and proved a little more difficult to see, but eventually showed briefly. A few waders came into the bay including a Greenshank, Curlew Sandpiper, Grey Plover and a Turnstone. Little Terns entertained us by fishing small fry on the edge of the lake by us, proving a real challenge for the photographers. All this had been accompanied by flocks of White Storks passing through like clouds of midges in the distance. We now moved on to a small reedy marsh named Camping Europe on the coast by a busy road. Here there was a lot of Little Egrets, Spoonbill, Purple Heron and lots of Ruff and Wood Sandpipers. A quick look over the sea and we found a couple of Red-necked Grebes. Lunch was taken back at the Hotel and was interrupted by a passing Osprey, a flock of Bee-eaters, another flock of Honey Buzzards and several enormous flocks of White Storks, the total for the reaching 12,000+ birds. After lunch we again visited Pomorie Lake initially at the second stop but we found we could not really close enough the perceived flocks of waders. However had got closer and found a 1st winter Slender-billed Gull and had good views of a Black-headed Wagtail amongst the flock of Yellow Wagtails and 20+ Turnstone. We relocated further along and found ourselves much closer as hoped. We were staggered by the numbers, another 500+ Little Gulls and 100+ Curlew Sandpipers. A few other waders we found including Spotted Redshank, but diligent searching by Jules eventually paid off with the finding of 2 Terek Sandpipers.

Tuesday Sept 1st :- Today we wanted a good view of Dalmatian Pelican so Petar headed off  to Lake Vaya . However 5 minutes from the hotel Michael realised he had left his telescope behind so most of the party was dropped to view the edge of Lake Atanasovo to view waders while the scope was collected. We never made the lake as we spotted a Lesser Spotted Eagle hunting low over the fields. By the time Michael had returned we had also seen Marsh Harrier, Kestrel, Common Buzzard and Long-legged Buzzard. We soon reached Lake Vaya and the pelicans were close to the shore with around 20 Dalmatian Pelicans being present, scattered largely individually and easily identified at this range from the flock of around 5000 White Pelicans. The sight of the pelicans swarming and feeding was something to watch in wonder. However there was a supporting cast of Gull-billed Terns, 100+ Little Egrets, Purple & Squacco Herons, Great Crested Grebes and Wood Sandpipers. After lunch at the hotel we headed off to Poroy Reservoir. On the journey we stopped to view 2 Short-toed Eagles and a Booted Eagle. We visited the feeder stream end of the reservoir which was surrounded by open land with some grazing animals and oak woodland. We stopped on the rough track and walked the last 200metres. A few raptors were around including a Montagu’s Harrier and amongst the hirundines a few Red-rumped Swallows. However the muddy margins were the main source of our attention with to Peter’s delight a Ruddy Shelduck was showing well, also present were a single Black Stork, 7 (active) Spoonbills, and several waders including a Lapwing - this was our 30th species of wader. We move closer to get a better view and identified Common & Spotted Redshanks, 7 Greenshank, Common & Wood Sandpiper, Common Snipe, Little Stint. Jules again found a Terek Sandpiper, which was the first record for the site and it showed much closer than yesterday’s birds appearing to have the normal yellow(ish) legs whereas the previous day's were much redder. We also managed to find a Garganey amongst the Common Teal, a Booted Eagle flew over, as did several flocks of White Storks, and a Jay. Yet another fine day was completed.

Wednesday Sept 2nd :- With our flight from Varna scheduled for 16.30 we still had time to visit a couple of sites that we had not managed to visit on the way to the airport. The pre-breakfast walk gave us the chance to see the usual morning birds, but unfortunately Michael still failed in his quest to photograph the Golden Orioles. A few Black-necked Grebes showed well off shore and we also spotted a Red-necked Grebe a little further out. At 9am we were on our way to Lake Poda, taking our last look at the pelicans on Lake Vaya on the way. Lake Poda is a visitor centre and reserve which is proudly managed by the Bulgarian Society for the Protection of Birds (BSPB). This is one of a few flagships sites that has been created and is a testament to the life’s work and dedication of Petar. We can only hope that Petar hard work and enthusiasm continues to raise the profile of conversation and wildlife in Bulgaria. At Poda we found a splendid male Black headed Wagtail, several Pygmy Cormorant, Water Rail and Penduline Tit. We could also look over Mandra Lake and watch some pelicans drop in to feed. There was still one target species left - Sombre Tit and we headed off to the Dyulino Pass with Petar in confident mood. Along the narrow road we stopped briefly for a group of Cirl Buntings and then had to stop to let a lorry pass, with Petar amazingly finding our target speciesin a small bush before it flew in to a dead tree. These 2 Sombre Tits showed very well for everyone to see, and then a Middle Spotted Woodpecker flew by. We headed to the top of the pass to explore for a little before lunch and the flight home. We were reward with close range views of Sombre Tits feeding on thistle heads, a single Marsh Tit was an interesting comparison and as ever Bee-eaters and Red-backed Shrikes were all around. Finally we set off for Varna Airport and Petar had there in good time for our flight back to London.

We had really enjoyed our late Summer visit to Bulgaria seeing many fantastic birds and witnessing many avian spectacles, which will remain in our memories for a long long time. We would like to thank Petar Iankov for his constant attention to detail and wonderful guiding skills, he is a credit to his fine country and we have all agreed to support the BSPB in a way of thanks to his efforts.


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