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BULGARIA

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BULGARIA: AUTUMN MIGRATION
11th – 18th SEPTEMBER 2012

Leaders            Dave Read.
Local Guide     Pavel Simeonov
Participants     Huw Wilding, Richard Ness, Paul Bateman and                           Michael Bleaney.

 

INTRODUCTION
This proved to be another extremely successful tour with far too many highlights to list them all. With a total count of 182 species recorded during the tour, it is perhaps the number of sought after target birds which the tour should be remembered for, with the likes of Ferruginous Duck, Saker, Broad-billed Sandpiper, Pallas's Gull, Syrian Woodpecker and Sombre Tit all seen very well. This is of course part due to the knowledge and expertise of our local guide Pavel, but also due to the small group size, permitting us to use a small 4x4 vehicle. This allowed us to travel to sites normally not possible with the larger minibuses typically used.

 

11th September
Our trip began at Luton with a direct flight to Bourgas. We departed at 12:45 arriving just a little over three hours later at 17:50 local time. Once all our cases had been collected, we met with Pavel Simeonov, our local guide and only a few minutes later we arrived at the Mirana Hotel, our base for three nights. After check-in we had some time to freshen up after our flight before enjoying a few drinks and a very nice meal in the hotel restaurant.

 

12th September
After breakfast we began by driving the short distance to Pomorie Lake, stopping first at the salt museum. Here several species of waders were present, with five Broad-billed Sandpipers which gave excellent views, the undisputed highlight. A few Little Stints were also noted as were Greenshank and a single Turnstone. There were also several Mediterranean Gulls, along with smaller numbers of Little and Slender-billed Gulls. Other birds of note included Little Egret, a distant Spoonbill and our first of many Red-backed Shrikes. Moving from here we visited various locations overlooking Pomorie Lake, where the different vantage points produced a dozen Black-necked Grebe, a juvenile Hobby, Kentish Plover, Whinchat and our first Bee-eaters.

Next we moved to Lake Atanasovsko, stopping first at the migration watch-point where we ate our packed lunch while scanning for raptors. Although there was obviously some migration taking place, the majority was very high and views were poor to say the least. Having said that we did receive good views of an immature female Levant's Sparrowhawk, with another two higher up and a good view of a dark phase Booted Eagle, again with another two higher up. In the distance there was a large group of White Pelicans roosting on the lake, with a near constant flow of birds flying in from the south to joint them. We then decided to move to the south side of the lake where we could get a better look at the Pelicans. While doing so we disturbed a Short-toed Eagle from the roadside which showed well in flight for some time. We then left the van for a while and walked down to view the pelicans and were surprised to find the first raft of birds were mainly Dalmatian Pelicans with no less than 90 birds present. However White Pelicans were by far the most numerous with an estimated 8000 birds present, with still more birds arriving all the time. Other birds here included Spotted Redshank, Ruff and Curlew Sandpiper, while in the reeds both Bearded Tit and Savi's Warbler were heard calling but not seen.

Visiting the salt pans on the opposite side of the road again produced many waders but a single Curlew was the only new addition. In the scrub surrounding the car park however were two of each Spotted and Red-breasted Flycatchers.

 

13th September
Today we visited Lake Bourgas, a huge lake skirted by tall reeds, which the city has grown up around. It is also skirted by a very busy road with only a handful of lay-bys made by fisherman to observe the lake from; however the birdlife here is so abundant, this is all that is needed. From the first lay-by seven Dalmatian Pelicans gave good views along with this photo. Our first of many Pygmy Cormorants were noted from here. Several Whiskered Terns passed back and forth and two fine adult male Ferruginous Ducks gave good scope views. Moving just a few hundred yards another stop was made which had a little better view of the lake where we spent some time. In the distance were once again huge numbers of White Pelican, many of which were observed taking off from the lake and circling over the nearby hillsides, where they gained height to continue there migration south. We also had our first Squacco Heron from here as well as Red-crested Pochard and Black Tern. A number of further stops were made at different viewpoints around the lake with highlights from these including Black-necked Grebe, Caspian Gull and Purple Heron.

We then moved to Lake Mandra, where we birded for a while adding Penduline Tit before moving to the observation tower at Poda to eat lunch. From here we had good views of the marsh as well as the many birds passing over. Raptors included at least 4 Booted Eagles, a single Short-toed Eagle, a few Steppe Buzzards and many Marsh Harriers. Up to six Dalmatian Pelicans gave exceptional flight views as they passed low over the tower, which is more than can be said for the three Collared Pratincoles which remained very high. A few Caspian Terns were also seen in flight. On the marsh waders included Snipe and Wood Sandpiper both of which gave good views, however a Black-winged Stilt remained distant. There were also many Little Egrets, two Great Egrets and two very distant White-winged Terns.

Moving south again we headed for the Izvorska River mouth, a protected area on the edge of Lake Mandra to look for White-tailed Eagle; however our journey there was broken by a very obliging Lesser Spotted Eagle which gave excellent flight views low over the road. Once there up to four Ferruginous Duck were again noted along with good views of up to 11 Pygmy Cormorants roosting. Although initially there was no sign of the White-tailed Eagle our patience was rewarded when an adult flew over towards the hillside at the southwest corner of the lake where it landed in a field, allowing decent scope views.

We then headed back to the hotel, visiting the Pomorie Lake briefly, though only Green Sandpiper was added by doing so.

 

14th September
Today we moved north leaving Bourgas behind and heading to the small town of Durankulak, just 3 miles from the Romanian border and our base for the next four nights. We decided not to use the main road however and instead headed up into the Balkan Mountains on the 906 (also known as the Dyulinski Pass) an old winding road which is rarely used. This gave us the advantage of being able to stop frequently to look for birds. The first of such stops provided Cirl Bunting, Hawfinch and Great Spotted Woodpecker. Continuing higher into the hills a stop was made when an adult male Woodchat Shrike was found close to the road. This proved to be one of the most fruitful stops of the journey, with Woodlark, Red-breasted Flycatcher, Raven and Booted Eagle all recorded; however the highlight was our first Sombre Tit of the tour, and a lifer for most of the group.

Another unscheduled stop was made when four migrating Black Storks were spotted, which were followed by at least 20 Lesser Spotted Eagles, all of which circled together on thermals before continuing south. Lunch was taken here and while doing so two Booted Eagles a Marsh Harrier and c150 White Pelicans also moved south.

After lunch we started to descend from the hills and while doing so sharp-eyed Pavel spotted a Middle Spotted Woodpecker from the van which showed well for some time. After a few less successful stops we were just about to give up our search for woodpecker when we found this female Grey-headed, which again gave very good views. Amazingly while watching this, a Syrian Woodpecker climbed up the very same trunk as the Grey-headed, although it didn't stay on show for long. Continuing, we eventually arrived at the Branta Birding Lodge, which sits overlooking Lake Durankulak and is home to not only Pavel and his family, but also almost the entire world's wintering population of Red-breasted Goose. Here Tatyana (Pavel's wife) welcomed us, making us all feel very much at home. Later after a short rest and a refreshing beer we enjoyed a delicious home cooked meal accompanied by a shot of homemade apricot and plum Rakia.

Other birds of note during the journey included a male Goshawk, Pallid Swift and Red-rumped Swallow.

 

15th September
The day got of to a good start when some of the group went for a short walk from the lodge seeing Spanish Sparrow, Syrian Woodpecker and a Golden Oriole. Back at the Lodge a very obliging Thrush Nightingale showed well albeit briefly on the lawn before flying up into a tree and eventually across the road. We then drove some of the back-roads for a while, but this didn't produce much except for Skylark and a dead Wildcat at the side of the road. Then we moved just a few kilometres south of the lodge to a very productive site where there was a small passage of raptors, the highlight of which were five Levant's Sparrowhawk and our only Honey Buzzard. There was also several Bee-eaters overhead as well as a few obliging Red-rumped Swallows.

Then we explored an area of steppe with many telegraph wires running over were we managed to locate a total of four European Roller. Next we headed to the nearby Lake Shabla, which itself proved fairly unrewarding, with only a single Squacco Heron and a Kingfisher of any note, although the nearby fields rewarded us with an even better view of Roller (see back cover) and our only White Stork of the trip. Just a short drive further and we were at our next destination, Shabla Tuzla, a shallow brackish lake famous for its curative Black Sea Mud. Although first we stopped briefly at the sea where this Levant's Sparrow showed well and a Wryneck was found nearby. Once at the lake we visited a viewing screen where many waders including three additions, Red-necked Phalarope, Marsh Sandpiper and Temminck's Stint could be viewed. Other highlights included Broad-billed Sandpiper and Kentish Plover.

Next we moved to Yalata, a beautiful cliff-top area of steppe grassland where Isabelline Wheatear and Calandra Lark were added along with a Quail, Shag and our first Osprey. Other raptors included two juvenile Montagu's Harriers, several Marsh Harriers and an adult female Pallid Harrier which gave prolonged good views allowing all of its identification features to be noted.

Continuing to Cape Kaliakra another area of steppe was searched briefly which provided yet another Roller, up to seven Tawny Pipits and a flock of 50 Calandra Larks overhead. Upon reaching the Cape, Dave immediately spotted a Pied Wheatear which showed very well. Further along many Red-breasted Flycatchers were noted including several in a small garden which also contained Spotted Flycatcher, Common Redstart and several warblers including Chiffchaff, Willow Warbler and Lesser Whitethroat.

We then moved a short distance to a rocky gorge for our final target of the day, Eagle Owl. A quick stop at the beach first produced a few Alpine Swifts overhead, while the narrow track to the gorge provided brief views of two Thrush Nightingales. Once in position we didn't have to wait too long before the owl was heard calling, and soon after found perched on top of the cliff allowing excellent scope views in reasonable light. It then flew off around the cliff and out of sight for a while before reappearing in flight over the cliff top and perching on a distant bush. Amazingly this was followed by another two birds which flew together in the same direction as the first.

 

16th September
Today we headed north across the border and into Romania. Our first stop was at Vadu, though we had already seen two new additions in the form of Rook and Pheasant before then. Once there it became obvious that the exceptionally hot and dry summer this year had taken its toll on the wetlands which were largely dry. Still we managed to find some interesting species with Gargany, Gull-billed Tern and Tree Sparrow new for the list. Other highlights included a distant White-tailed Eagle and close up views of Purple Heron, Little and Mediterranean Gulls. We also recorded our first Long-legged Buzzard from here though it was fairly distant, with much better views to follow later in the day.

Our next stop was made at Lake Istria, where the large body of water here held good numbers of waders and wildfowl including our only Pintail of the tour. Meanwhile numerous migrating flocks of White Pelicans were also moving over, many of which containing several hundred birds. Often amongst the pelicans raptors could also be found and although most were high, some gave reasonable views. A golden patch of activity came when in just 15 minutes we had an Osprey, a few of each Steppe Buzzard and Marsh Harrier and at least 50 Red-footed Falcons. The star bird however was a juvenile Saker which gave decent views as it circled over head.

Next we continued to a remote site in the south of the delta where Pallas's Gull ( Great Black-headed Gull ) is known to breed. Immediately on arrival one flew past and out of sight before we could really view it, but luckily we didn't have to wait long before another or the same flew back in the opposite direction. In the distance several large gulls could be seen at the mouth of the channel but were too far away to identify, however a pleasant stroll down to view them closer produced a count of 12 birds, with probably more present as only part of the spit could be viewed from the gap in the reeds. There were also several Caspian Terns moving back and forth while other sightings included single Dalmatian Pelican and Squacco Heron, up to three Kingfishers, a small flock of migrating Red-footed Falcons and a second year male Pallid Harrier.

With the long drive back to the lodge ahead of us we decided to make a start on the journey. However this planned took a turn when we located another male Pallid Harrier right by the roadside. Unfortunately it rapidly departed and despite trying to relocate it again we were unable to, we did however come across a small flock of Red-footed Falcons, which gave prolonged good views and a flock of c25 Ruddy Shelduck flew over. As we had driven some distance from the main track in search of the harrier, a new track was explored which took us close to some productive wetlands on the edge of Lake Sinoe. These were full of birds and even though time was pushing on we couldn't resist a quick look, with three Marsh Sandpipers and a Red-necked Phalarope our reward for doing so.

This sadly concluded our Romanian excursion, but with many good birds encountered it certainly whet our appetite for what this country has to offer.

 

17th September
With Lake Durankulak on the doorstep we spent our last full day leisurely birding around the lake and surrounding countryside. We started by driving from Durankulak village down a small track to the north arm of the lake, where we continued along the lakeside until reaching the campsite. Highlights along this drive included our first Hoopoe & Great Reed Warbler and our only Moustached Warbler; we also flushed a few Quail from the side of the track. We then spent a very rewarding hour or so walking around the campsite searching for migrants, by far the commonest of which was Red-breasted Flycatcher with probably 50 or more birds present, including two males. Other birds here included Common Redstart, Lesser Whitethroat and a single of each Great Spotted and Syrian Woodpecker.

Lunch was taken back at the lodge, before heading back to the lake, this time concentrating on the south eastern corner. The drive down produced a Long-legged Buzzard, while further excitement came in the way of a Wryneck on the track. There were also several Red-backed Shrikes and a few of each Northern Wheatear, Whinchat and Stonechat, though the windy conditions were making finding birds difficult. With this in mind we headed to the beach and looked out to sea for a while which produced two Arctic Skua's close in and several Black-necked Grebe. On the beach a few Sanderling and Turnstone were feeding with the more numerous Dunlin and Ringed Plover.

We then had a coffee at the campsite restaurant before again searching for migrants, though the only addition from this morning was a Common Cuckoo. During the course of the day many interesting waterbirds were noted either on the lake or in flight above it, and included several Pygmy Cormorant, up to 7 Squacco Heron, 5 Purple Heron, 4 Great Egret and a few Whiskered Tern. To finish the evening a very obliging Osprey made several unsuccessful attempts to catch prey before giving up and flying off empty handed.

 

18th September
Sadly our final day, though with our return flight not until 16:35, we still had most of the day to enjoy some more birding. We started the day with a pre-breakfast trip to the campsite, where again large numbers of Red-breasted flycatchers were present, perhaps as many as 30 birds, clearly down on yesterday but impressive all the same. Great Spotted and Syrian Woodpeckers showed well and there were a scattering of common migrants, though nothing new for the list. On the sea were several Black-necked and Great Crested Grebes, while several Little, Mediterranean and Black-headed Gulls were moving offshore and an Osprey passed over. We then spent some time scanning over the reedbeds / lake, with the following birds all noted in flight, Pygmy Cormorant, Great Egret, Purple Heron, Marsh Harrier and Ferruginous Duck. Huw then spotted a couple of wheatears on the toilet block roof, one of which appeared very dark and on closer inspection we found this very obliging female Pied Wheatear. We then decided to head back for breakfast though a quick stop to look at a Eurasian Sparrowhawk also rewarded us with our only Red-throated Pipit of the tour which flew over, giving its diagnostic high pitched pssiih call as it went.

After breakfast we said our farewells to Tatyana and made a start on our journey to Varna. First we quickly revisited part of Lake Durankulak, hoping the calmer conditions today would yield more, however once at the lake we soon discovered it was still windy here so quickly moved on, though we did add Meadow Pipit. We continued from here south along the coast, stopping occasionally to check the sea though this only provided lots more Black-necked Grebe and a few Shag. A quick stop was also made at Topala, though this was fairly unrewarding.

We then moved to the wooded hillsides of the Batova Forest, north of Varna. Here we were able to look for woodpeckers while scanning the skies for migrating raptors. Although no woodpeckers were seen, (September is a difficult month for woodpeckers) Green Woodpecker was heard. Raptors on the other hand were much more obliging with several Steppe Buzzards, a Booted Eagle, 2 Goshawks, 2 Levant's Sparrowhawks, 2 Hobbies, 1 Red-footed Falcon and our only Peregrine of the tour. Other birds here included several Hawfinch, two flocks of migrating White Pelicans and our only Tree Pipit.

With our birding now over for the day, it was time to continue to Varna. Once at the airport we checked in and moved through to departures with out any hassle, concluding what had been an outstanding bird filled week.

This brought the total to an exceptional 182 species recorded during the tour, with almost too many highlights to mention, however I think most of the group would agree the good views of both Pelicans, migrating Lesser Spotted Eagles, the Red-footed Falcons and Pallid Harrier in Romania, Levant's Sparrowhawk, Broad-billed Sandpiper, Pallas's Gulls, Eagle Owl, Grey-headed Woodpecker and the many Red-breasted Flycatchers, including the stunning male featured on the front cover were certainly all contenders for the top ten.

We would like to thank everyone involved with this tour, for making it such a successful and hugely rewarding trip. With a special thanks going to Tatyana for the exceptional hospitality shown to us at the Brant Birding Lodge.

 

Images
Red-breasted Flycatcher @ Pavel Simeonov, Branta Tours.    Dalmation Pelican @ Dave Read, Lanius Bird Tours.
Grey-headed Woodpecker @ Dave Read, Lanius Bird Tours.   Levant's Sparrowawk @ Pavel Simeonov, Branta Tours.
Pallas's Gull @ Pavel Simeonov, Branta Tours.   Pied Wheatear @ Richard Ness.

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