FLY SOFIA, TRANSFER TO SATOVCHA
Our spring birdwatching tour to Bulgaria begins with British Airways morning flight from London Heathrow to Sofia, the Bulgarian capital. Early afternoon arrival in Sofia, where we’ll be welcomed by our local guide and set off east through a landscape of rolling farmland.
The journey to our first hotel takes 3-4 hours, but we will also make one important stop along the way for an excellent chance of hearing Corncrake - and maybe even seeing one, if we are lucky! The likes of Ortolan Bunting, Barred Warbler and Red-backed Shrike should ensure a fine introduction to Balkan birdlife.
Turning south into the picturesque Rhodope Mountains, close to the border with northern Greece, we pass through high forest to arrive at our first hotel in time for dinner this evening. The alpine resort of Satovcha will be our base for an overnight stay. Night Satovcha
Days 2 - 3
TRIGRAD GORGE & EASTERN RHODOPE MOUNTAINS
The conifer-clad slopes at Satovcha provide a scenic backdrop for a first pre-breakfast stroll. Serins may ‘serinade’ us outside our hotel, where Pallid Swift, Firecrest, Crested Tit, Black Redstart and Crossbill can also be found.
Leaving Satovcha, we head to Trigrad gorge - an area that right up until the early 1990s was out of bounds to both foreigners and Bulgarians alike. Following the course of the fast-flowing Trigrad River, this spectacular valley gradually narrows into a dramatic steep-walled chasm. Alpine Swifts and Crag Martins nest on the sheer cliff faces and Dippers bob beside the river far below.
We will no doubt be distracted by the plethora of interesting butterflies - Scarce Swallowtail, Berger’s Clouded Yellow, Eastern Wood White and Black-veined White possible here in May. In the past, we have sometimes been lucky to find the elusive Wallcreeper too, flicking its wings like an outsize, crimson-winged butterfly.
Still with a reasonable distance to travel to reach our next hotel, we leave the Trigrad area and continue east, deeper into the Rhodope range - a rugged upland landscape dominated by the remnants of extinct volcanoes.
Our destination for these two nights is the town of Krumovgrad, on the banks of the beautiful Krumovitza River. From our hotel we have the opportunity to go out in the evening to look for Scops Owl, and also to enjoy a morning walk enriched by the songs of Turtle Doves, Cuckoos, Hoopoes, Eastern Olivaceous Warblers and fluting Golden Orioles. Hawfinch and Lesser Grey Shrikes often breed in the poplars.
The eastern Rhodope are well known as one of Europe’s most important regions for birds of prey. There are Egyptian and Griffon Vultures to watch for here, and we sometimes spot a lone Black Vulture, too. Black Storks nest on the cliff faces above the Krumovitza River, and Western Rock Nuthatches also breed nearby. Chukars chuckle as they forage amongst the crags, with handsome Black-eared Wheatears for company.
In the valley bottoms, exotic Bee-eaters and Rollers, Lesser Grey and Red-backed Shrikes, and Black-headed and Cirl Buntings add more than a splash of Mediterranean colour to our birding, as two of Europe’s loveliest songsters - Nightingale and Woodlark - provide the soundtrack. There are also plenty of birds of more subtle attraction, including Eastern Orphean, Eastern Olivaceous and Barred Warblers, and the elusive Sombre Tit.
Aside from the birds, these lovely mountains are rich in wildflowers and butterflies, including the localised and beautiful Eastern Festoon. Two nights Krumovgrad
Days 4 - 5
EAST TO THE BLACK SEA COAST
Leaving Krumovgrad, we have a quite bit of ground to cover today as we complete the journey east from the mountains to Bulgaria’s Black Sea coast. But there will be plenty to watch for along the way! One special bird to keep a keen eye open for as we push on east is Rosy Starling, an irruptive Asian species that reaches Bulgaria in small numbers most years.
The open cornfields may produce a pair or two of Montagu’s Harriers and the roadside wires may be peppered with Black-headed and Corn Buntings, and Lesser Grey Shrikes. The main highway is remarkably traffic-free and passes through some surprisingly extensive stretches of oak woodland - a habitat favoured by a number of sought-after localised specialities including Levant Sparrowhawk, Eastern Orphean and Eastern Bonelli’s Warblers and Ortolan Bunting.
Our picnic today may be taken at a newly established breeding colony of Lesser Kestrels, where a mix of wild and hand-reared birds fly about the building affording excellent views. Our visit here has been a highlight on all our recent tours. After lunch, we’ll have a try for Olive-tree Warbler and Masked Shrike - both can be elusive and the shrike can mimic the warbler! This promises to be a memorable day for raptors: the European Souslik - a burrowing ground squirrel found in open grassland here - is high on the menu for a number of birds of prey including Lesser Spotted and Eastern Imperial Eagles. With any luck we might also pick up our first Red-footed Falcons on the approach to Burgas and our hotel for two nights in the nearby coastal resort of Pomorie.
Burgas may be a major port on Bulgaria’s Black Sea coast, but its wetlands support a variety of birdlife matched by few other areas in Europe - as we'll soon discover next day! Little Bittern, Squacco Heron, Glossy Ibis and Spoonbill are among a host of breeding reedbed birds, with Common and Ruddy Shelducks, Garganey and Black-winged Stilt on the lagoons and Great White Pelicans coasting overhead. Yellow-legged Gulls are much in evidence, and as we sift through them in search of the less common Slender-billed and Mediterranean Gulls, we might also see a lumbering White-tailed Eagle flapping heavily across the lake, putting white-winged Ferruginous Ducks to flight. Two nights Pomorie
Days 6 - 7
KAVARNA & THE BLACK SEA COAST
We will spend the first part of day six exploring the saltpans at Pomorie. Flocks of migrating waders pause here on the journey north to their Arctic breeding grounds, with the likes of Little Stint, Ruff and Curlew Sandpiper looking particularly attractive in full breeding plumage. By searching carefully we might be lucky to locate something rarer in their midst: perhaps a twirling Red-necked Phalarope or Broad-billed Sandpiper - and we have seen Terek Sandpiper!
Leaving Pomorie, we follow the Black Sea coast north towards Bulgaria's border with Romania. A hinterland of thickly wooded valleys is the haunt of Lesser Spotted Eagle, European Honey Buzzard, Levant Sparrowhawk, Icterine Warbler and other 'eastern' delights. The forest at Goritsa has a healthy population of woodpeckers, with Grey-headed and Middle Spotted among species we could see. We will also be making a special effort to find the localised Semi-collared Flycatcher, small numbers of which breed in nestboxes in the forest - and there are Short-toed Treecreepers and Hawfinches to look for here too, adding challenge to what promises to be another exciting day.
Our accommodation for these two nights is a small but comfortable hotel in the seaside resort of Kavarna; newly built and only recently opened, it makes an ideal base from which to explore the northernmost shores of Bulgaria's Black Sea coastal region. The small valley by the hotel is well worth checking for migrant birds feeding up in the morning - and Levant Sparrowhawks sometimes nest here!
Lake Durankulak is a mainly brackish lake which lies just to the south of the Romanian border. Smart Spanish Sparrows breed in the foundations of the immense nests of White Storks and the fringing reedbeds are home to a small population of Paddyfield Warblers, a primarily Asiatic species nesting here at the westernmost limit of its range. Pygmy Cormorants add further to the distinctly 'eastern' flavour as we walk beside the lake, where we may also see a migrating Red-footed Falcon.
Not far from Kavarna, the dramatic limestone cliffs of Cape Kaliakra are home to dashing Alpine Swifts and the smart Pied Wheatear, the latter yet another species occurring here at the westernmost edge of its range. We might be lucky to see a party of Yelkouan Shearwaters passing by offshore or even to spot a fiery-eyed Eurasian Eagle Owl staring back at us from its home on the cliffs.
Inland of the Cape, the sky above the rolling steppe is full of glorious lark song in spring, mostly exalted by slow flapping Calandra Larks in their curiously bat-like display. This habitat is also attractive to dry country specialists such as Stone-curlew, Short-toed Lark and the 'edge of range' Isabelline Wheatear. Two nights Kavarna
Days 8 - 9
DOBRUJA STEPPE, LAKE SREBARNA AND DANUBE LOWLANDS
Heading inland, we cross the rolling cultivated steppe of the Dobruja region today to reach the extraordinarily rich valley of the River Danube.
Here lies wonderful Lake Srebarna, hemmed by a mosaic of forests, vineyards and steppe, and designated a World Heritage Site of special importance for its colony of Dalmatian Pelicans - largest and rarest of the world’s seven species of pelican. Srebarna’s reedbeds also harbour a rich variety of other wetland birds.
Handsome Black-necked and Red-necked Grebes attend their floating nests, spear-billed Purple Herons hunt for fish and frogs in the shallows and bandit-masked Penduline Tits wheeze asthmatically from the willows against a cacophony of warbler song that features Savi’s, Marsh and the raucous Great Reed. As graceful Whiskered Terns and the occasional Black Tern drift back and forth over the open water, the sight of the gorgeous and localised Large Copper will be an added delight for those who also have an appreciation of butterflies.
After a morning walk during which we will listen out for Thrush Nightingale, we have a more leisurely second day exploring the lake at Srebarna, hoping for good views of Penduline Tit and Grey-headed Woodpecker in the trees around its edge. We may also visit a good area for butterflies, one where we've seen Freyer’s Purple Emperor and Map in the past.
The lush Danube lowlands close to the border with Romania can also be good for migrants. Walking beside the great river we’ll be looking especially for nesting Black and Middle Spotted Woodpeckers, Kingfisher and Redstart; we'll pause to admire a colony of colourful Bee-eaters and Silver-studded Blue butterflies, while amidst the mosaic of reedbeds and oxbow lakes we can listen for the Bittern’s 'boom' and search the willows for the diminutive Lesser Spotted Woodpecker. On our previous visits here, non-avian highlights in this wildlife-rich area have included Eastern Clouded Yellow, Common Glider, Norfolk Hawker and Downy Emerald.
Our hotel for these two nights is Pelican Lodge, a small and friendly village hotel close by the River Danube and Srebarna Lake. Two nights Pelican Lodge, Vetren
NOVA CHERNA WETLANDS TO BUCHAREST, FLY LONDON
After some (optional) early morning birding today, we leave Vetren after breakfast and head west, stopping along the way at another great wetland site close to the town of Nova Cherna. This area of old fishponds is home to a wealth of birds and wildlife, with Savi’s and Great Reed Warblers, Red-backed Shrikes and sometimes Hobbies and Red-footed Falcons in the area, the latter two feasting on the numerous dragonflies.
Leaving Bulgaria, we then catch a ferry across the Danube and arrive on the Romanian shore.
Driving north, we will relatively quickly find ourselves at Bucharest Airport. Bidding farewell to our local guide and driver here, we catch the British Airways afternoon flight to London Heathrow, where our spring birdwatching tour to Bulgaria concludes at around teatime.