Julian Sykes Wildlife Holidays

Bulgaria - Geese & Raptors

3rd - 8th February 2009 

Tuesday February 3rd :- Our day started early as Michael & Wendy wanted to make sure we left enough time to get to Gatwick for our 09:15 flight to Varna. This was a shrewd move as a couple of accidents south of the airport slowed our progress followed by a back-lanes drive from the vehicle drop off point. Eventually we reached Gatwick and was greeted by bedlam in the departure check-in area but a kind BA representative took us to the correct desk and we joined the very long queue for passport control. The disruption of the cancelled flight from the previous day was having an impact and we weren’t sure we would make our flight!. Although once in the departure lounge we found out the flight were a couple of hours delayed so we settled down for some very welcome breakfast. Eventually we got underway and landed in Varna at dusk where we were met by Dimiter – our Bulgarian ground agent. We drove north through some very barren countryside and arrived at our hotel right on the Black Sea coast near Kavarna in darkness. It had been a very long day but wash, relax and an evening meal after being introduced to Jan & Ima - a lovely Dutch who were also joining our group. We were ready for what the next day would bring - another pre-dawn start!, but this time the prospect of a few thousand Red breasted Geese was our motivation.

Wednesday February 4th :- Our first full day in the field started early with a dawn arrival at the very impressive Durankulak Lake. As we exited the mini-bus we could see the harriers leaving their reedbed roost. Firstly it was Hen Harriers who mainly left the area to the surrounding agricultural fields, followed by lots of Marsh Harriers. We walked towards the waters edge and there in the centre was a huge flock of Red breasted Geese, it was incredible. We could hear their distinctive calls over the 1000’s of White fronted Geese, which were already leaving the overnight safety of the lake to feed in the surrounding fields. As it started to get lighter the mass flew up and over our heads, it was simply amazing to see 3000+ Red breasted Geese at one time, and watched as they headed north to the Romanian Border. It was now fairly light despite the overcast conditions so Dimiter suggested we stayed around that area to look for any other birds, and in the next hour we saw Great Crested Grebes, Pygmy & Great Cormorants, Mute Swans, Mallard, Teal, Pochard, Coot, Yellow legged Gulls, Skylarks, Greenfinches, Great & Blue Tits plus heard only Water Rail, Bearded Reedlings, Penduline Tits, Moustached & Cetti’s Warblers. Eventually we returned to the vehicle but Dimiter wanted us to check the large flock of White fronted Geese that had landed near another lagoon. So we made our way slowly along a couple of embankments adding Red Crested Pochard, Gadwall and Wigeon until we were quite close to the flock. Immediately we found 40+ Red breasted Geese near to where we were, but then Dimi said he had found an adult Lesser White fronted Goose at the front edge of the flock. During the next couple of hours we carefully watched these birds, taking photographs and enjoying the spectacle, and also seeing Great Bittern, 4 Great White Egrets, Common Buzzards, more Marsh & Hen Harriers, Kestrel, Sparrowhawk, Water Pipits and Hooded Crows. It was fabulous, despite the cold and biting wind. It was now time for lunch, which was a picnic so we returned to the mini-bus as we were going to a nearby camp-site to eat it. Just before we got back an immature White tailed Eagle drifted over much to the pleasure of our group but not the vast goose flock, which went into a slight panic at the huge raptor. Soon we were on our way and at the entrance to this coastal site we saw our first Whooper Swan on a small roadside lake. Although the site was officially closed for the Winter Dimi chatted to the owner (& local mayor) and he kindly put the kettle on. So while waiting for the coffee we looked out over the bay finding 2 Mediterranean, Black headed & Common Gulls on the beach, and lots of Black necked Grebes and Coots offshore. The hot drinks were very welcome and whilst having our lunch we added Red breasted Merganser and Shag to our growing list. We said our “thank you’s & goodbyes” to the proprietor and left for our afternoon’s destination – Shabla Lakes. We disembarked just inland from the coast at a small wood next to a lake, and as we walked along the road a woodpecker called not far away, this was a Great Spotted Woodpecker. Then another flew in and this was slightly different – a male Syrian Woodpecker, another of our target species. Over the next half hour we remained in the area getting views of a pair of Syrian & Great Spotted Woodpeckers, plus Hawfinches, Chaffinches, Siskin and Goldfinches. Next we checked the lake and found a few early waders including a surprise Ruff, 2 Little Stints, a few Dunlin and Common Redshanks, also here were a couple of Shelducks, Wigeon, and Teal. We returned to the wooded area and found 40+ Fieldfare had landed in the tree-tops and a Pheasant flew up from the side of the track. Before leaving we checked the coast but it was fairly quiet with only the only a Red breasted Merganser, a few Black necked Grebes and Coot to be seen. Nearby we visited another lake - Tuzla in the Shabla area, where we remained until dusk. We soon found the usual duck species along with Little & Blacked necked Grebes, then Jan found a distant female Smew another nice addition to the list. As the afternoon drew to a close lots of Corn Buntings, Greenfinches and Chaffinches sat on the overhead wires and bushes in readiness for roosting, and 1000’s of Starlings gathered over reeds and created their sky-dance before disappearing to roost. So ended our first very full day in Bulgaria and what a success it had been.

Thursday February 5th :- Today Dimiter had suggested we followed the same format in the morning as the previous day. So again we set off before dawn arriving to find the same flock of 3000+ Red breasted Geese sat on the lake in a tight group. The Marsh & Hen Harriers had already started to disperse as the light was much better than the previous day. The wildlife was stirring a little earlier and already a large gathering of White fronted Geese were on the adjacent fields. Shortly after we got to the edge the huge flock of Red breasted Geese lifted into the air in unison calling to each other, this was magical as today they went right over our heads and looked very impressive in the morning sunlight. Hopefully the photographers in the party got some good images?. We watched as again they disappeared into Romania to the north but we still had the White fronts to check before leaving. At the edge of the lake we stopped, watched and listened for passerines and with a little patience we saw no less than 5 Moustached Warblers, 2 Cetti’s Warblers, 4 Bearded Tits and a couple of Penduline Tits, with also plenty of Reed Buntings and a Mistle Thrush. Eventually we returned to the mini-bus and drove back along the lane stopping well in front of the goose flock spread out in the field. Slowly we edged closer and closer and while doing so we found another female Smew on the lake now below us plus Great Crested & Little Grebes, Great & Pygmy Cormorants, Tufted Duck, Common & Red Crested Pochard, Common Teal, Gadwall, Mallard and a single Red breasted Merganser. Dimiter was obviously very skilled and knowledgable in approaching wild geese as we eventually got within photographic range, as well as being able to check the whole flock. Not only did hold 2000+ Greater White fronted Geese, we also found another Lesser White front, 91 Red breasted Geese and a Greater White front with a neck collar (only their second this winter). It is amazing how time passes and we had to leave for lunch at a very nice place next to the Black Sea at the unenviably named town of Krapets. As we drove into town Dimi showed us a Little Owl roosting on the roof of a house and in the gardens and fields there were Rooks, Hooded Crows, Jackdaws, Collared Doves and House Sparrows. Prior to lunch we checked the bay where we got our first views of 3 Black throated Divers, plus the usual mergansers, grebes and coots. Lunch was excellent, although the hot sauce I decided to have with my sausage caused some amusement to the locals. So Ima also decided to try some and her face was a picture as it touched her lips!. After lunch we left Krapets and headed south to the migrant hotspot of Cape Kaliakra, one of Bulgaria’s most famous birdwatching sites. This peninsular juts out into the Black Sea with high cliffs being home to the resident Yellow legged Gulls, Shags and Cormorants. The area is quite historical with monuments and buildings dotted around the low bushes and scrub. We slowly walked out to the point but things were generally quiet as you would expect in early February. One highlight was finding a few Harbour Porpoise off-shore, which apparently was a good record for this time of year. Michael, Wendy & I left the others and wandered a little inland were there was some more activity and found Black Redstarts, Stonechats, Goldfinches, Greenfinches, Corn Buntings and a Song Thrush. The afternoon was wearing on and Dimiter wanted us to be in position for our chance of finding an Eagle Owl at dusk. So back in the mini-bus we drove the short distance to the small valley at Tyulenova.  We parked and with at least an hour of light left had a walk along the road checking a small pool, the roadside bushes and a small copse of trees. During this time we saw plenty of Blackbirds, Blue & Great Tits along with a couple of Goldcrests, 3 Great Spotted Woodpeckers, Linnets, Wren and a Robin. We were in position, listening and checking the holes dotted around the rock-face but with no luck. Then at one large cave I see 2 dog-like mammals at the entrance and say “I’ve got a couple of dogs in my binoculars?”, but then Jan says “surely Foxes?”. By this time I had my telescope trained on them and I knew they weren’t Foxes so showed Dimiter who exclaimed “Golden Jackals”. It was a great find and much enjoyed by the whole group as they can be very difficult to see normally, in fact these were my first ever. We watched the jackals in the cave entrance until they sloped back out of sight and then turned our concentration to the owls. I was now getting quite dull but I picked out a shape against the dark rock and got my scope on it. Bingo – there was a European Eagle Owl looking around, and quickly got everyone on to it. After a minute or two we decided to elevate our position for a better view and as we moved it flew along the ridge line and alighted on a bush on the horizon enabling all of us to get decent silhouetted views of this magnificent predator. I great end to the day, but I think everyone was starting to get a little tired.

Friday February 6th :-
Today we had been give a welcome ‘lay in’ by Dimiter as we were spending the day driving south to Burgos. In fact Dimiter had other commitments for the rest of our trip so he left us in the very capable hands of one of his prodigies Mladen Vasilev. So we said our “farewells & thank you’s” to Dimiter and I along with Michael & Wendy will be looking forward to seeing him again in August. We set off south along the main coast road where two stops produced a brief look at our first Long legged Buzzard and another Syrian Woodpecker, and the other several Calandra Larks and a single Crested Lark. Our first official stop was at the White Lagoon Resort near Topola, a site where Eurasian Eagle Owl might be seen roosting during daylight hours. At the site we checked carefully the chalky rock face but to no avail although good views of a couple of Hawfinches made up for the slight disappointment. Again we headed south and beyond the town of Balchik, we stopped at the very nice Albena Resort. Within the confines of this complex with it’s hotel blocks and small amusement areas there is the nature reserve of Baltana. This is mature deciduous woodland and we made full advantage of it seeing several Lesser Spotted Woodpeckers, Middle Spotted Woodpeckers, Great Spotted Woodpecker and a (heard only) Grey headed Woodpecker plus Short toed Treecreepers, Nuthatch, Coal, Great & Blue Tits. We had a lovely walk through the trees and it was a pleasure to hear the different calls emanating from the forest. It now time to leave so back at the mini-bus we headed south and beyond Varna we stopped for lunch at a road-side restaurant near Rudnik. I only had some soup but those who had the main dish were very impressed with the quality of the food (something we had noticed about all our meals in Bulgaria). I finished my meal early and went for a short walk to look for raptors. It was now a lovely sunny day but could only conjure up a Kestrel and 10+ Common Buzzards, some of which were probably migrating north. Once ready we continued but soon after headed inland to the Eastern Balkan mountain range, which is fairly low-lying but very scenic with forests of oak. We were heading for the village of Panitzovo where a special target species has started frequenting a garden bird table. We entered the garden and Mladen introduced us to the owner who showed us where to sit – right in front of a table laden with seed. Already there were Great & Blue Tits coming down but then Mladen heard a familiar call and a quick search revealed a Sombre Tit coming towards the table. It was like the paparazzi at a photo shoot but the little beggar kept us busy as we struggled to get a decent shot of him. I am sure some of the group got some good ones but I know I didn’t!. After about an hour we were very kindly invited for hot refreshments by the owner, which included some lovely cake and very much appreciated as there was an afternoon chill in the mountains. Most people wanted to try again for the Sombre Tit but I went for a short walk to the edge of the village and found Green & Great Spotted Woodpeckers. The afternoon was closing and we still had a little way to go so we headed off stopping again briefly at the highest point of the mountains to see the views over the surrounding countryside. Finally we dropped down to the coast and on to Burgos where we found our hotel again overlooking the sea.

Saturday February 7th :- Mladen had a big day in store for us with a full complement of lakes and wetlands to visit around Burgos. So we crossed town to the famous Mandra Lake, where we stopped at the side of the road but fog was hindering our view. Although there in the mist swam our first 2 Dalmatian Pelicans along with Common Pochards, Mallard, Great Cormorants and Great Crested Grebes. While watching a Bittern flew in and land in the reeds right in front of us, showing very well before disappearing into the undergrowth. Our next stop was part of the same lake but further inland and we spent a good deal of time waiting for the fog to lift and enjoy the local birdlife. Around here there was a large flock of Dalmatian Pelicans, 40+ Whooper Swans and Mute Swans, lots of Pygmy & Great Cormorants, Little & Black necked Grebes, Great White Egrets, another Great Bittern, Mallards, Common Pochards, Tufted Ducks, Gadwall, Common Teal, a few Goldeneye and a female Smew. Jan found a couple of adult White tailed Eagles sat in trees on the far hillside, and there were plenty of Marsh Harriers and Common Buzzards floating about, as the weather turned bright and quite warm. A Hawfinch showed extremely well in the roadside trees allowing some photographs to be taken at quite close range. Next we drove a short distance to another bridge were a reed-fringed river ran into the main lake and the call of Bearded Reedlings soon caught our ears. We quickly indentified the location and stood above the reeds and waited for movement. Then out into the open moved a pair of Bearded Reedlings where they remained for a long time feeding on the seed heads of bulrushes. These little gems through the telescope were magnificent and one you normally don’t manage to get in the wild. We continued to search the reeds and waters and while doing so a Ruddy Shelduck flew into view, another good addition to the list. It was now nearing lunchtime and we were going to the BSPB (Bulgarian Society for the Protection of Birds) reserve and information centre at Poda. As we walked towards the centre a Long legged Buzzard appeared over a nearby ridge and flew around giving super views before alighting on one of the pylons in the area. We quickly made our way to the roof terrace of the visitor centre and scoped it sat on the metalwork. It was lunchtime and we had brought our picnics to eat while looking for raptors drifting over. We saw a few Common Buzzards, Kestrel, Sparrowhawk and Michael did well finding a Peregrine Falcon also sat on one of the pylons. Jan picked out 11 Ferruginous Ducks on a small lake along with several more Dalmatian Pelicans. After lunch we had a walk into the heart of the reserve checking the small pools and finding Green Sandpiper and Common Redshanks. Then 10 Great White Pelicans flew in and circled around for a while being joined by a Dalmatian – making for a good flight comparison. At the river we flushed an illegal poacher who ran off, gun in hand before finding a Curlew and the usual duck species. We returned to the mini-bus and left for our final destination the Burgos saltpans of Atanasovsko. There were lots of birds here, mainly Black headed Gulls, but soon we had picked out our first few Slender billed Gulls, some looking resplendent with their pink flush. There were lots of Avocet also and the usual Shelduck, Shoveler, Teal and Mallard but a group of 30+ Pintail were a nice addition to our wildfowl list. A Sparrowhawk buzzed through and a couple of Great Spotted Woodpeckers called from isolated trees. We wandered around this urban (and frankly unpleasant) setting, getting chilly as the sun dropped behind the horizon so it was time to depart. We returned to the hotel for our final night and enjoyed yet another good meal before retiring to bed.

Sunday February 8th :- As Jan & Ima had an early flight from Varna we needed to go straight to the airport, leaving the rest of us some spare time. Mladen had got a plan and took us to Kumurluka – an area of scrub and trees surrounded by some interesting rock formations. Eagle Owls frequent the rocks so we spent some time searching the holes and crevices but without luck. Although we did see Cirl Bunting, Yellowhammers, Wren, Tree Sparrows, Jays, and Ravens. A Black Woodpecker called deep from within a stand of trees but would not show itself unfortunately. We left and dropped down to the river where we caught a car ferry and watched the Pygmy Cormorants fly past. On the other side we saw another pair of Cirl Buntings before moving to our final site – the Yatata Wetlands. Here we enjoyed our final hour as we looked over the small lake and reedbeds. A Great Bittern flew across the lake showing well, along with Great White Egret, Shelduck, Shoveler, Tufted Ducks, Common Pochards, Marsh Harrier, Common Buzzards, Great & Blue Tits, Siskins, Goldfinches, Hawfinches and Reed Buntings. It was now time to leave for the airport and we said our “goodbyes” to Mladen for his marvelous efforts during the past couple of days. It had been a fantastic short break and well worth repeating in the future.



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