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WINGS Birding Tours – Narrative

Bulgaria in Spring

Birds and History

2024 Narrative

IN BRIEF: Our 2024 Bulgaria Birding and Culture Tour took us on a wonderful adventure across the length and breadth of this fascinating country. Despite some unseasonal weather we discovered a great selection of brilliant bird species plus a wide range of other fauna and flora. On top of this the cultural visits, breathtaking landscapes, delicious food, and warm hospitality made for a fantastic tour. Birding highlights included the iconic Wallcreeper, incredible views of migrating Eurasian Hobby and Red-footed Falcon, hundreds of Great White and Dalmatian Pelicans soaring above us, an amazing 21 species of birds of prey, and eastern specialists like Masked Shrike, Semicollared Flycatcher, Paddyfield Warbler, and Olive-tree Warbler.

IN FULL: With the group arriving in a staggered fashion our tour began with an optional birding session at Vitosha Mountain Nature Park. Set in a beautiful landscape around one of the ski centres and we were able to enjoy alpine specials like Spotted Nutcracker, Ring Ouzel, and Dunnock. Other species were Eurasian Crag Martin, Common Kestrel, Mistle Thrush, and very showy Black Redstart, Grey Wagtail, and European Chaffinch. In the evening, we enjoyed our welcome meal and looked forward to the tour ahead.

The following morning, and with unseasonal wet weather, we visited our first cultural site of the tour, the stunning Rila Monastery. Despite the weather we did also add Pallid Swift to our list here. A short birding session further up the Rila mountain yielded Northern Raven, Song Thrush and calling Common Goldcrest, Coal Tit, and Common Chiffchaff. However, the weather slowly beat us as rain and fog moved in. After lunch, and with the weather still tough going, we switched plans and visited the superb Melnik winery where we were able to sample 5 local wines and have a tour of the vineyard. Finally, as evening approached, the weather yielded and we had a wonderful hour birding session close the vineyard, with great views of Black-headed Bunting, Red-backed and Woodchat Shrikes, Crested Lark, Corn Bunting, plus much more. A great end to a wet but bird-filled day.

The following morning, we decided to make the most of the dry weather and use the afternoon for travel due to impending rain. Early morning birding outside our hotel gave us great views of Alpine Swift and European Bee-eater, amongst others. Our first stop of the day was a volcanic valley where Eurasian Green Woodpecker, Eastern Olivaceous Warbler, Eastern Black-eared Wheatear, and Cirl Bunting all showed well in fantastic habitat. As the morning progressed, we headed to the ancient Roman town of Heraclea Sintica, one of the most exciting classical archaeological sites in the region. While we wandered around this fascinating site we continued birding with the star being a superb adult Eleonora’s Falcon drifting over with a Eurasian Hobby in close attendance. Other birds seen here included Common Nightingale and Northern Wheatear, while Eurasian Hoopoe and Cetti’s Warbler were heard. After lunch we started the long drive to our next location in Yagodina, stopping briefly to enjoy great views of White-throated Dipper in a nearby river. We arrived in Yagodina with the hope of better weather in the morning. 

With better weather in store for us today we made an early start with a pre breakfast walk around the village. In beautiful morning light we enjoyed Pallid Swift, Sombre Tit, Eurasian Bullfinch, and European Serin, with a pair of distant Roe Deer offering something different.  After breakfast we began the short drive to the famous Trigrad Gorge in the hope of spotting Wallcreeper, the star bird of our tour so far. After a short wait we enjoyed distant views of this iconic species before the bird gave itself up fully and showed brilliantly for the entire group. Celebrating a job well done we moved to the meadows and forest behind Trigrad Village where we had Coal Tit, Common Firecrest, White-throated Dipper, and Eurasian Wren. After lunch we headed deep into the forest where the biggest surprise was a stunning European Roller which was found by one of the group. Also, here we enjoyed Black Woodpecker, Eurasian Jay, European Crested Tit, and Whinchat. With the sun dropping behind the mountains, we headed back to our hotel in Yagodina.

The next day was primarily a transfer day but we enjoyed some good birding and cultural stops along the way. Our first stop was the picturesque Asenova Fortress and as well as being a fantastic cultural site we also had good views of Blue Rock Thrush and Marsh Tit which were new for the trip. Our lunch stop near the village of Dobrostan also gave us some great sightings with European Honey Buzzard, Common Cuckoo, and Willow Tit being the highlights. The discovery of the incredibly rare Fly Orchid gave the botanists in the group a very exciting moment and we also enjoyed brief views of Souslik, a small ground squirrel. Our final stop of the day was the ancient city of Perperikon which we reached in glorious evening sunshine. We explored the ancient ruins and nature watching continued with Eurasian Hoopoe, Lesser Whitethroat, and Eastern Orphean Warbler adding the birding excitement while Balkan Green Lizard and a superb Hermann’s Tortoise were also found. We finished the day with a well-deserved meal at our hotel and a refreshing drink, much needed after finally feeling some warm southern European weather.  

The following morning’s birding would take place around the town of Madzharovo. A pre-breakfast walk around the town parks gave us Middle Spotted Woodpecker, Lesser Spotted Woodpecker, Syrian Woodpecker, Eurasian Golden Oriole, and others. After breakfast we headed to Madzharovo Crater where we would spend most of the day dodging showers. Highlights of our visit included Griffon Vulture, Egyptian Vulture, Booted Eagle, Short-toed Snake Eagle, Black Kite, Barred Warbler, Eastern Subalpine Warbler, Eastern Black-eared Wheatear, Black Stork, and a very unusual sight of two Eurasian Spoonbill migrating high overhead. Our final diurnal stop near the crater gave us Chukar and Rock Bunting as new birds for the trip and a nocturnal walk around the town gave us good views of Scops Owl, where multiple birds were heard singing in the warm evening air.

The next day we would head to the dry lands of the beautiful Eastern Rhodope lowlands. Our first stop gave us good views of European Honey Buzzard, European Roller, Olive-tree Warbler, and Eurasian Hoopoe. Next, we moved on to a scrubby area near the village of Studen Kladenets where Eastern Subalpine Warbler gave us the run around but eventually showed well. With the temperature rising we stopped for lunch. Birding around our lunch spot gave us great views of Egyptian Vulture, European Roller, Lesser Grey Shrike, Eastern Black-eared Wheatear, and Cirl Bunting. Our final stop of the day was the Arda River. This site is home to Thracian burial tombs but also a great spot for birding with Golden Eagle, Common Kingfisher, Long-tailed Tit, and Eurasian Nuthatch showing here. We also had a huge Horned Woodcock Orchid nearby. After a hot day we were glad to return to our hotel and once again enjoy great food and a refreshing drink. 

We had another hot day in store, with some distance to travel meant birding targeting specific species rather than more general birding. Our first stop was the village of Levka. This small village has become famous for its successful Lesser Kestrel reintroduction program, and we enjoyed several flying around the site. While here we also had good views of Lesser Spotted Eagle, Booted Eagle, and Masked Shrike. After lunch we moved further northeast where our main target was the incredibly rare Eastern Imperial Eagle which duly obliged in giving us distant but prolonged views. Also present were a superb Long-legged Buzzard and we finally enjoyed good views of Barred Warbler.  The rest of the day was spent travelling to our beautiful hotel in Sozopol, a picturesque town on the southern Black Sea coast. After a hot day the cool sea breeze was very welcomed. 

Today we would explore the Burgas area and its many lakes which make it a fantastic birding area. Before breakfast a few of the group walked along the front of Sozopol near our accommodation where we recorded Pygmy Cormorant, Lesser-Spotted Woodpecker, Eastern Olivaceous Warbler, and Spotted Flycatcher. After breakfast the whole group headed towards Burgas where we would explore the numerous lakes. Our first stop gave us a number of species including our first Great White and Dalmatian Pelican of the tour. Also here were Purple Heron and European Honey Buzzard. Moving on to Mandrensko Lake our list increased with our first Red-footed Falcon plus good views of Lesser Spotted Eagle and Garganey. After lunch we explored the Poda protected area where we enjoyed Black-winged Stilt, Little, Common, and Whiskered Terns, Eurasian Oystercatcher, and a brief Collared Pratincole.In the afternoon we visited yet another lake where we had great views of Greater Flamingo, Pied Avocet, Ruff, and Mediterranean Gull. We returned to Sozopol very satisfied with our day’s birding around the lakes of Burgas.

Our next day would mostly serve as a transfer day between Burgas and the northern Black Sea coast near Varna. Due to high water levels out first stop only gave us a few species but gave great views of Black-winged Stilt, Pied Avocet, Black-bellied Plover plus Little, Sandwich, and Common Tern. As we headed north our next stop was a targeted one and after a bit of a wait we enjoyed amazing views of the increasingly rare Ortolan Bunting. Other birds seen in the open woodland were Black-headed Bunting, Eurasian Golden Oriole, and European Bee-Eater.  Our final stop of the day was old woodland which made up a nature reserve near an old Soviet sports park! Despite the mosquitos we managed to find some fabulous birds including 5 species of woodpecker (Middle Spotted, Great Spotted, Lesser Spotted, Grey-headed, and Eurasian Green) plus the highly prized Semi-collared Flycatcher. We arrived in the north-east corner of Bulgaria as the sun was setting, making a great backdrop to our delightful seaside restaurant and hotel.

Our first day full day in the area began with a pre breakfast walk along the coast near Krapets. A relatively quiet walk was shaken awake by stunning views of both Red-footed Falcon and Eurasian Hobby migrating northwards, with one Eurasian Hobby flying past us at just a few metres range. After breakfast we birded the eastern shore of Durankulak lake where we enjoyed a wide range of species. The birding started with a big surprise in the car park where we had fantastic views of a first summer Common Rosefinch, a rare breeder in Bulgaria. Highlights on the lake included Garganey, numerous Ferruginous Duck, White-tailed Eagle, Red-footed Falcon, Eurasian Hobby, and a Dalmatian Pelican on the sea. After lunch the group split, with many deciding to enjoy the hotel’s pool. A small group enjoyed a long walk around the borders of Shabla Lake. A great range of species were seen here with highlights including Paddyfield Warbler, Marsh Warbler, Black Woodpecker, and Levant Sparrowhawk, plus many more species.  Once this small group returned we reunited over yet another wonderful meal in our seaside restaurant.

Our next day would be spent heading inland towards the Romanian border on the Danube River. However first we visited some coastal birding sites with different habitat offerings than the previous day. Unfortunately, the wind had really picked up overnight which made the birding challenging. However, at our first stop we enjoyed fabulous views of Eurasian Thick-knee, Greater Short-toed Lark, and Isabelline Wheatear. Moving on to the popular Cape Kaliakra we had great views of another Wheatear, this time Pied Wheatear. Other birds seen here included Alpine Swift and Arctic Loon while nearby we enjoyed close views of Calandra Lark.  With the wind really picking up we headed inland. A random stop gave us a truly special moment with prolonged views of Laughing Dove, one of the first confirmed breeding in Bulgaria. Our final stop of the day was the superb Srebana Lake Nature Reserve. With the wind far calmer here and the temperature more pleasant we chose a suitable vantage point and scanned the large lake for birds. In just over an hour, we recorded 51 species with highlights being Ruddy Shelduck, Whiskered Tern, Glossy Ibis, and good numbers of both Dalmatian and Great White Pelican. We arrived at our rustic and quaint lodge to the sound of Golden Orioles and Common Nightingale singing all around us. 

Our final pre breakfast walk of the tour saw us explore the small village of Vetren near our hotel. In beautiful early morning light we had fantastic views of Eurasian Wryneck and European Pied Flycatcher plus the astonishing sighting of a Leucistic Red-backed Shrike, a truly one off moment.  After breakfast we headed west for our final cultural visit at Sveshtari. The Thracian tomb of Sveshtari is a fantastically preserved tomb which was thought to contain the body of the Thracian king who defeated the heir to Alexander the Great. We even had some birds here with Lesser Spotted Eagle and Northern Wheatear giving great views. After lunch, and a siesta during the hottest part of the day, we headed back to Srebarna Lake. In four hours exploring the lake’s borders we racked up 80 species and had some wonderful experiences. Highlights included Red-crested Pochard, a briefly heard Little Crake, a breeding plumage Ruff, hundreds of Great White Pelican soaring overhead, Little Bittern, Black-crowned Night Heron, Glossy Ibis, White-tailed Eagle, and Eurasian Penduline-Tit.

Our final full day saw us visit the beautiful Malak Preslavets Marsh. A walk along the eastern shore of the lake gave us Middle Spotted Woodpecker, Red-backed Shrike, Marsh Warbler, and multiple Great Reed Warbler. Over the lake we witnessed a fantastic spectacle of hundreds of Whiskered Terns nesting on the lily pads which cover the north end of the lake. High above the lake an aerial battle between a Booted Eagle, White-tailed Eagle, and two Common Buzzards kept us very entertained. In the afternoon we transferred to Bucharest in Romania where our tour would end.

-Oli Reville

Created: 05 June 2024