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Bulgaria The Secret Flyway

An 8-day, small group birdwatching tour to Bulgaria

Our autumn visit to Bulgaria’s Black Sea coast is timed to coincide with the big annual movement of birds of prey, pelicans and storks as they bypass the Balkan Mountains and stream south towards the Bosphorus in Turkey. It's one of Europe's busiest yet - surprisingly - least known migration corridors. Passage peaks during the second half of September, when the range of species heading south along this 'Secret Flyway' is astonishing. This classic migration tour is also excellent for waders - plus Red-breasted Flycatcher, Red-backed Shrike and countless other passerines that make landfall on Bulgaria's coastal headlands. Join us for some terrific autumn birding, without the crowds!

Tour Dates

2019

Available

Leaders
Robin Chittenden
Lyubomir Profirov

Max Group Size: 10
Duration: 8 Days

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Cost: £1595

inc flights outbound from London Heathrow to Sofia, returning Bucharest to London Heathrow with British Airways

Deposit: £300

Single Supp: £125
Land Only: £1425

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Bee eater juvenile Bulgaria Gary Elton

In autumn European Bee-eaters head south in a seemingly constant stream - many fly over at such height they are heard only: here a juvenile poses for the cameras © Gary Elton, Limosa

Corncrake on the hotel balcony... Lesser Spotted Eagles passing by right outside the bedrooms... Black Storks at eye level as we breakfast in the restaurant... a male Pallid Harrier ghosting in from the sea at extremely close range... ‘falls’ of Red-backed Shrikes, Golden Orioles, Icterine Warblers and Red-breasted Flycatchers on the coastal headlands... a flock of 1200 roosting White Pelicans... up to 21 different species of birds of prey recorded in the week... These are just some of the many varied highlights taken from our previous autumn tours to Bulgaria’s Black Sea coast over the past 20 years.          

The annual migration of birds of prey and storks over the Bosphorus in neighbouring Turkey has long been famous as one of the great European bird spectaculars. But the fact that the majority of these birds - plus countless thousands of pelicans, herons and other migrants - must first travel south through coastal Bulgaria was inexplicably overlooked by travelling birders until as recently as the late 1990s!          

As with migration anywhere, the make up and number of birds moving can vary enormously from day to day, and year on year. But our autumn birdwatching tour to Bulgaria is carefully timed to run during the period when the spectacle of migration along this ‘secret flyway’ is typically at its best. And by arriving into Sofia but leaving from Bucharest, we will have time to cover all the coastal hotspots in Bulgaria's Black Sea region - as well as to visit the productive Danube River valley, too.          

By happy coincidence, some of Europe’s most important wetlands are also to be found nearby. The coastal saltpans, lakes and reed beds are a vital staging post for southbound migrants and can hold an impressive array of specialities. Great White and Dalmatian Pelicans, Pygmy Cormorant, Little Crake, Broad-billed and Marsh Sandpipers, Bluethroat and Penduline Tit are among 'regulars' we’ve seen before.

To the north, the coastal limestone steppe atop Cape Kaliakra attracts falls of migrant chats, warblers, flycatchers and shrikes - Red-backed Shrikes and Red-breasted Flycatchers can be particularly numerous! Being so little visited, we have good chances of finding something really special ourselves. Pallid Harrier, Eurasian Eagle Owl and Pied Wheatear are among birds to have stolen the show in the past, while forests inland of the coast can be outstanding for woodpeckers.

After six nights exploring the coast, we swing inland and head west along the Danube Valley, with views of the open floodplain landscape and chances of raptors and other migrants funnelling round the mountains to the south. The wetlands and woodlands along the River Danube can be real migrant traps in the autumn, hosting marsh terns, Black-necked and Red-necked Grebes, herons, pelicans and passerines. Here, Pelican Lodge will be our base for the final night of our tour before we cross the Danube itself and make an easy return to Bucharest for our flight home.

We first ‘discovered’ Bulgaria in 1996 and our groups have been returning every year since. Guide Gary Elton has led tours to Bulgaria for us in May and September, and our autumn 2019 trip will be his fifth - and Limosa’s 40th - visit there. As ever, our tour will also be accompanied by an experienced Bulgarian ornithologist guide.

Join us for a week of exciting autumn birding in Bulgaria and thrill to the movement of birds of prey, pelicans, storks and innumerable passerine migrants that stream south along the 'Secret Flyway' every September!

Middle Spotted Woodpecker Bulgaria Gary Elton

Middle Spotted Woodpeckers are to be found in woodlands at Goritza, where - though they can be elusive - we have a good chance of seeing them © Gary Elton, Limosa

Day 1            
FLY SOFIA, TRANSFER TO BLACK SEA COAST

Our September birdwatching tour to Bulgaria commences with the British Airways morning flight from London Heathrow to the Bulgarian capital Sofia, where our local guide will be waiting to welcome us.

From Sofia, we travel east along the southern edge of the Balkan Mountains to reach our first hotel, at Pomorie on Bulgaria’s Black Sea coast. It's a journey of about four hours by bus, but we should arrive at our hotel in time for dinner this evening; (we believe you will find this infinitely preferable to the inconvenience of flying to the coast, with unavoidable changes of aircraft and touchdowns en route and eventual arrival at the hotel at around three in the morning on day 2).

We will pause to stretch our legs along the way and watch for our first Bulgarian birds - Osprey, Black Stork and soaring Great White Pelicans being among highlights seen on previous tours.

Our hotel for the first three nights of our tour is a comfortable contemporary property, close to the sea in Pomorie (east of Burgas). Night Pomorie

Days 2 - 3                                            
POMORIE: LAKES ATANASOVSKO, BURGAS, MANDRA & COAST

Twelve miles to the west, Burgas is a large port on Bulgaria’s Black Sea coast - but there also happens to be a major raptor migration route right overhead! The second half of September sees peak passage here, with columns of birds streaming southwards. We should see plenty of Common Buzzards (some showing characters of the eastern form vulpinus or ‘Steppe Buzzard’), along with variable numbers of Lesser Spotted and Short-toed Snake Eagles, Marsh Harriers and Eurasian Sparrowhawks. A generous sprinkling of other species adds to the mix, with Black Stork, European Honey Buzzard, Long-legged Buzzard, Red-footed Falcon and Levant Sparrowhawk possible.

The make up and number of birds moving will of course vary day to day (and year to year), but that such a prospect should have been largely overlooked by travelling birdwatchers until so relatively recently is surprising - even more so when one realises that some of Europe’s major wetland sites also lie nearby!

In fact, Bulgaria’s most celebrated migration watchpoint - Lake Atanasovsko - lies within easy drive of our hotel. Despite being so close to the town, the lake boasts a wealth of bird life. Kentish Plovers, Black-winged Stilts and Avocets frequent the shallows and amidst the thousands of Yellow-legged and Mediterranean Gulls that gather at the lake each autumn, we should find the much rarer Slender-billed Gull.

In autumn, adjacent Lake Burgas can sometimes hold thousands of Great White Pelicans, often with a few rare Dalmatians tucked in amongst them. Nearby, larger Lake Mandra is a frequent haunt of the immense White-tailed Eagle.

The Black Sea coast is also excellent for waders in autumn and we have recorded as many as 25 species during the week - including occasional goodies such as Red-necked Phalarope. Turning our eyes skyward, we'll check frequently for birds of prey sneaking by overhead! The passage of warblers through the area shows terrific potential for eastern vagrants to appear and other migrants regularly recorded by our groups include Bee-eater, Hoopoe, Red-breasted and Spotted Flycatchers, Whinchat and Red-backed Shrike. The latter can often be abundant!

Over the open water, graceful Black and Whiskered Terns work to and fro above parties of resting wildfowl. It’s the perfect opportunity to study the latter's trickier autumn plumages, while the reedbeds provide shelter for Eurasian Spoonbill, Great and Little Egrets, and Squacco and Purple Herons. Nights Pomorie

Day 4                        
NORTH TO GORITZA & KAVARNA

Our first stop today may well be to check the local saltpans at Pomorie for some of the many bustling waders that pass through. Amongst the expected Dunlin and Little Stints, we may pick out Greenshank, Curlew Sandpipers and Ruff, with scarcer species such as Marsh and Broad-billed Sandpipers also possible.

Leaving the fascinating wetlands around Burgas behind, we then head north along the coast towards our next hotel, at Kavarna. Our travels today will take us through an ever-changing landscape - past sprawling seaside resorts with extensive beaches, along rockier stretches with cliffs and through well-wooded valleys that are a haven for birds. Despite the rather dreary sound of its name, in fine weather we will find that the ‘Black Sea’ is actually a bright azure blue, its shores etched with bays of brilliant white sand.

Although migration could bring us to a halt more or less anywhere along the route today, we will make a planned stop to explore some fine forest near Goritza. Short-toed Treecreeper, Hawfinch and a variety of woodpeckers are possible. In autumn, birds of prey follow the line of the hills and the main road here - some groups have seen Pallid Harriers and Lesser Spotted Eagles over Goritza.

Late afternoon arrival at Kavarna, where we stay three nights. Night Kavarna

Days 5 - 6                      
KAVARNA: LAKE DURANKULAK & CAPE KALIAKRA

Set on a hillside overlooking the Black Sea coast, Kavarna is perfectly situated for an autumn birding tour. Migrants of all shapes and sizes follow the valley here and, if conditions are right, the daylight hours have sometimes seen birds of prey and storks passing right by us at eye-level!

At night, the town’s lights act as a beacon to nocturnal avian travellers. As with migration anywhere, the results are at their most dramatic during spells of mixed weather, when anything from Night Heron to Nightjar, plus waves of night-flying passerines, may descend upon the hillsides and hotel grounds. We once found a Corncrake sheltering on the hotel balcony!

Having made checked to see what’s 'new' first thing, we head to Lake Durankulak, a brackish lake within 6km of the border with Romania. Glossy Ibis, Pygmy Cormorant and Ferruginous Duck lend a distinctly 'eastern' flavour to our birding here as we sift through the gatherings of waterfowl and shorebirds.

In late September, the scrub-topped limestone cliffs of nearby Cape Kaliakra are attractive to passerine migrants. They also act as a 'bottle-neck' to southbound raptors and other large soaring birds, while high-flying Bee-eaters pour south almost constantly and Red-backed Shrikes pop up on seemingly every bush! We will spend time exploring the headland, which stretches out into the Black Sea as if beckoning Asiatic birds to make the crossing.

In autumn, Lesser Spotted and Booted Eagles, Honey Buzzard, Osprey and other birds of prey can become grounded on the Cape during periods of inclement weather, which can also result in falls of... well, just about anything! We’ve enjoyed some excellent birding here over the years and previous ‘finds’ have included Pallid Harrier, Spoonbill, Corncrake, Tawny Pipit, and Short-toed and Calandra Larks. Seawatching from the cliffs could reward us with views of scuttling Yelkouan Shearwaters and the enormous Eurasian Eagle Owl is also possible on the cliffs. Nights Kavarna

Day 7
DANUBE & LAKE SREBARNA 

If conditions are right, we may pay a final early morning visit to Cape Kaliakra to check for new arrivals that might have taken refuge overnight.

Later, we'll make the relatively short drive northwest across rolling fields, this time passing to the north of the Balkan Mountains, to reach the Danube River valley. Harriers may be seen quartering the fields as they funnel east around the hills, and sometimes Rollers are found on roadside wires. The landscape changes as we pass through Dobrich and we have a chance to see more Lesser Spotted Eagles and perhaps even the local speciality – Rook!

Passing by the old Roman town of Silistra we continue west to our final hotel, which lies close to both the River Danube and the wonderful wetland reserve of Lake Srebarna.

Lake Srebarna is a UNESCO World Heritage site of international importance for its breeding colonies of Dalmatian Pelicans, herons and many other wetland species, including Pygmy Cormorant. In autumn, many of these birds may still be present, but there is also a chance of seeing other species such as Red-necked and Black-necked Grebes, Whiskered and White-winged Black Terns or perhaps Little Bittern.

Our destination this evening is the comfortable Pelican Lodge. If time permits, we can take the short drive down to the River Danube. Beside the mighty river, there may be some late season dragonflies and butterflies to enjoy – or a wild-eyed Black Woodpecker in the poplars, if we are lucky. Night Vetren

Day 8
NOVA CHERNA MARSHES, DANUBE FERRY CROSSING TO ROMANIA, FLY BUCHAREST-LONDON

By taking advantage of the late afternoon flight home from Bucharest - a much shorter journey than driving all the way back to Sofia from here - we should have time to enjoy some further birding along the Danube Valley this morning.

The relatively new marshland at Nova Cherna is a special area and may reveal yet more reed and wetland species. In autumn, the scattered trees can hold passerine migrants and we will hope to find something new.

Bidding farewell to Bulgaria, we then take the ferry across the River Danube to arrive on the Romanian shore. Once across the Danube, we are within 60 miles or so of Bucharest Airport. Late afternoon check-in for our British Airways flight back to London Heathrow, where our autumn birdwatching tour to Bulgaria concludes.

RED BREASTED FLYCATCHER JUV Romania Gordon Small Sep 2012 7010

Passerine migrants on the move in September include good numbers of Red-breasted Flycatchers © tour participant Gordon Small, wildlifeimagesgs.com

What To Expect

An 8-day birdwatching tour to Bulgaria’s Black Sea coast, timed to coincide with the annual movement of birds of prey, pelicans and storks as they bypass the Balkan Mountains and stream south towards the Bosphorus in Turkey. It's one of Europe's busiest yet least known migration corridors - at its best in the second half of September when the range of species heading south along this 'Secret Flyway' is astonishing.

Spending six nights at the coast and one in the Danube Valley, this classic migration tour is also excellent for waders, plus Red-breasted Flycatcher, Red-backed Shrike and countless other passerines that make landfall on Bulgaria's coastal headlands. Join us for some terrific autumn birding - without the crowds!

The weather is typically warm (12-25°C/59-77F) and sunny on the Black Sea coast in autumn. September is one of the driest months of the year in Bulgaria, but as with anywhere in Europe some rainfall is always possible. However, wet weather is unlikely to be prolonged at this season - and it does bring the migrating birds!

Birds

150-175 species

Accommodation

7 nights accommodation in Bulgaria, staying at hotels well situated for the best autumn birding: 6 nights in comfortable tourist hotels on the Black Sea coast (3 nights Pomorie, 3 nights Kavarna), plus one night at Pelican Lodge in Vetren, in the Danube valley. All rooms are en suite.

Meals

All main meals are included in the tour price, commencing with dinner on Day 1 and concluding with lunch on Day 8. Breakfasts and dinners will be taken at the hotels. Lunches will usually be picnics in the field.  

Walking

Easy. Short walks on good trails over easy-moderate terrain. Sturdy walking shoes or lightweight boots with corrugated soles for grip are recommended.

Travel

We fly with British Airways, outbound from London Heathrow to Sofia (Bulgaria) and returning from Bucharest (Romania) to London Heathrow.

A note about the flights: Based on current airline schedules, we are confident you will find the above routing infinitely preferable to the protracted alternative of having a long wait in Sofia before catching the onward Bulgaria Air flight late evening in order to reach the coast - and eventual arrival at the first hotel around three o'clock in the morning on day 2! While the return journey with Bulgaria Air is no better, requiring an early start from the hotel followed by another lengthy lay over in Sofia before the onward flight to London departs.

Ground Transport  By minibus with local driver.

Great White Pelicans Bulgaria Gary Elton

Millions of migrants - including Great White Pelicans like these three - follow the shores of the Black Sea south every autumn © Gary Elton, Limosa

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1 GS, Bulgaria, September tour ... Brilliant to see migration at first hand - especially the Black Stork, Lesser Spotted Eagle and White/Dalmatian Pelican, all in huge numbers, and all new to me!... [empty string]
2 RC, Bulgaria, September tour ... Both the British and Bulgarian leaders of our group were first class in their knowledge and enthusiasm particularly for birds, but for wildlife in general. They made every effort to ensure we got the most from our holiday... [empty string]
3 GC (guide), Bulgaria, September tour ... A huge passage of Black Storks, Lesser Spotted Eagles and Common Buzzards brought Levant Sparrowhawk, Short-toed, Booted and a Spotted Eagle too amongst 19 different raptors for the trip - plus exuberant Bee-eaters dashing past and a quite loopy Nightjar!... [empty string]
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