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
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
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
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.