Bulgaria

The Secret Flyway

An 8-day, small group birdwatching tour to Bulgaria in autumn

Limosa’s autumn birding tour to Bulgaria and the Black Sea coast is timed to coincide with the big annual movement of raptors, 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. Passage peaks here during the second half of September, when the variety of species travelling down 'the Secret Flyway' is astonishing. Our September birdwatching tour to Bulgaria is a classic autumn migration tour - also excellent for waders, not to mention Red-backed Shrike, Red-breasted Flycatcher and innumerable other passerines that make landfall on Bulgaria's coastal headlands. Join us for some terrific autumn birding, without the crowds!

Tour Dates & Prices

Fri 18th September 2020

Fri 25th September 2020

  • Booking Closed

Fri 17th September 2021

Fri 24th September 2021

  • Spaces

Tour Cost: 8 Days from £1595 inc return flights from London Heathrow

Deposit: £300Single Supp: £135Land Only: £1425Group Size: 10Leaders:  Robin Chittenden & Lyubomir Profirov
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What's Included?

  • Limosa Tour Leader
  • Expert English-speaking Bulgarian ornithologist guide
  • Flights - outbound from London Heathrow-Sofia, and returning Bucharest-London Heathrow, nonstop with British Airways
  • 7 nights accommodation in Bulgaria, staying at good and comfortable hotels
  • All main meals - and drinking water provided
  • Minibus transport
  • All excursions, local guides, entry fees, permits
  • All tour-based tips (guides, driver etc) and taxes
  • Map & Limosa checklist of birds

Cost Excludes

Insurance, drinks, airport/in-flight meals and snacks & other items of a personal nature

View or Download Tour Info Pack

Notes

The Land Only cost is the price you will pay if you choose to arrange your own flights

Tour Cost: 8 Days from £1595* inc return flights from London Heathrow

Deposit: £300Single Supp: £135*Land Only: £1425*Group Size: 10Leaders:  Lyubomir Profirov & to be announced

* 2020 tour costs shown. Please note costs for our 2021 tour TBA (available summer 2020)

What's Included?

  • Limosa Tour Leader
  • Expert English-speaking Bulgarian ornithologist guide
  • Flights - outbound from London Heathrow-Sofia, and returning Bucharest-London Heathrow, nonstop with British Airways
  • 7 nights accommodation in Bulgaria, staying at good and comfortable hotels
  • All main meals - and drinking water provided
  • Minibus transport
  • All excursions, local guides, entry fees, permits
  • All tour-based tips (guides, driver etc) and taxes
  • Map & Limosa checklist of birds

Cost Excludes

Insurance, drinks, airport/in-flight meals and snacks & other items of a personal nature

View or Download Tour Info Pack

Notes

The Land Only cost is the price you will pay if you choose to arrange your own flights

Tour Highlights

  • Impressive autumn bird migration along Bulgaria's Black Sea coast
  • Expect to see 150-175 species during the week
  • Birds of prey, pelicans, storks... plus many passerine migrants heading south for the Bosphorus
  • Coastal lakes and wetlands producing 20-30 species of wader on most trips
  • Great White & Dalmatian Pelicans, Pygmy Cormorant, Lesser Spotted Eagle, Levant Sparrowhawk
  • Syrian Woodpecker, Bee-eater, Sombre Tit, Penduline Tit, Red-backed Shrike, Red-breasted Flycatcher
  • Small group tour - maximum of 10 participants
  • Our 42nd visit to Bulgaria (2020 tour)
  • Expertly led by Limosa's Robin Chittenden and an English-speaking Bulgarian ornithologist guide

Outline Itinerary

  • We fly London Heathrow-Sofia and travel east towards the Black Sea coast. Night Stara Zagora

  • Arriving at the coast, we enjoy two days birding around Lake Atanasovsko and the Black Sea coastal marshes near Burgas. Pomorie (2 nts)

  • After checking Pomorie saltpans, we head north along the coast via Goritza Forest. Night Kavarna

  • We explore Lake Durankulak, Cape Kaliakra and other birding hotspots along the northern Black Sea coast. Two further nights Kavarna

  • Inland to Lake Srebarna and the Danube River valley. Night Pelican Lodge

  • Visit Nova Cherna marshes and cross the Danube by ferry into Romania. Fly Bucharest-London Heathrow

Overview
Itinerary
Trip Info
Trip Reports
Middle Spotted Woodpecker Bulgaria Gary Elton.jpg
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

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 and varied highlights from our previous autumn tours to Bulgaria’s Black Sea coast over the past 24 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, shorebirds 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 Limosa’s 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. In autumn, the coastal saltpans, lakes and reed beds here 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 'tour regulars' we’ve seen before.

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

After six nights exploring the Black Sea coast, we swing inland and head west along the Danube Valley, enjoying views of the open floodplain landscape and chances of raptors and other migrants funnelling round the mountains to the south. 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. Pelican Lodge will be our base here for the final night of our tour before we cross the Danube itself and make an easy return to Bucharest (rather than Sofia, which is more than double the distance away) for our flight home.

We first ‘discovered’ Bulgaria in 1996 and our groups have been returning every year since. This autumn 2020 tour will be Limosa’s 42nd visit to Bulgaria, and guide Robin Chittenden's fifth trip there. We shall be accompanied throughout our stay by our old friend Professor Lyubomir Profirov - ‘Lyubo’ - a professional, English-speaking Bulgarian ornithologist and bird tour guide working for our specialist ground agents.

Join us for a week of super 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!

Icterine Warbler Milos Balla tabbed.jpg
Bright Icterine Warblers are passing through in small numbers in the autumn - bushes near the coast are a good place to look © Milosz Balla

Day 1
FLY SOFIA, DRIVE EAST TO STARA ZAGORA

Our September birdwatching tour to Bulgaria commences with the British Airways morning flight from London Heathrow to Sofia, where we arrive a little after 1.00pm. Lyubo, our resident Bulgarian guide, will be waiting to welcome us.

From Sofia, we travel east along the southern edge of the Balkan Mountains to Stara Zagora, where we break our journey to Bulgaria’s Black Sea coast with an overnight stop. It's a distance of just 2 hours, so we should arrive at our hotel in time for a little leg-stretch and local birding before dinner this evening. Night Stara Zagora

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

Leaving Stara Zagora after breakfast this morning, we complete our journey to the Black Sea coastal wetlands in a little under two hours.

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 migrating 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 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 all possible.

The make up and number of birds moving will, of course, vary from day to day (as well as year on year), but that’s all part of the magic and mystery of bird migration! However, that such a prospect should have been largely overlooked here 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 a short drive of our Pomorie hotel. Despite being so close to 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 may find Caspian Tern and 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 29 species during our week - including occasional goodies such as Temminck’s Stint, Red-necked Phalarope and Broad-billed Sandpiper.

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 September groups include Bee-eater, Hoopoe, Red-breasted and Spotted Flycatchers, Whinchat and Red-backed Shrike. The latter can often be abundant!

Out 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 ‘eclipse’ plumages, while the reedbeds provide shelter for Eurasian Spoonbill, Great and Little Egrets, and Squacco and Purple Herons.

New for 2020, our upgraded hotel for these two nights is a comfortable and contemporary property, close to the sea in Pomorie (approx. 11 miles to the east of Burgas). Two nights Pomorie

Day 4
NORTH TO GORITZA & KAVARNA

We leave the Burgas area today and head north along the coast - but not before checking for passage waders on the local saltpans at Pomorie. Amongst the anticpated Dunlin and Little Stints, we may pick out Greenshank, Curlew Sandpiper and Ruff, while scarcities such as Temminck’s Stint, and Marsh and Broad-billed Sandpipers are also possible. Looking up from time to time, we’ll check to see if any pelicans, storks or birds of prey are also on the move!

Leaving the fascinating wetlands around Burgas behind, we follow the shores of the Black Sea 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 couple of planned stops to explore some fine forest near Goritza. Short-toed Treecreeper, Hawfinch and various woodpeckers are possible, while our September 2019 group was also lucky with Sombre Tit. In autumn, birds of prey follow the line of the hills and also the main road here - some of our trips have seen Pallid Harriers and Lesser Spotted Eagles passing 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. Hobby, Syrian and Great Spotted Woodpeckers, 20 Alpine Swifts, Red-breasted Flycatcher, Black Redstart and Hawfinch were among pre-breakfast highlights during our stay last year. 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 checked to see what’s 'new' first thing, we drive north to Lake Durankulak, a brackish lake within 6kms of the border with Romania. Glossy Ibis, Pygmy Cormorant and Ferruginous Duck may lend a distinctly 'eastern' flavour to our birding here as we scan for autumnal 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 seem to pop up on just about 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! Indeed, we have enjoyed some excellent birding here over the years and previous ‘finds’ have included Pallid Harrier, Spoonbill, Corncrake, Short-toed and Calandra Larks, Pied Wheatear and Tawny Pipit. 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. Two further nights Kavarna

Day 7
DANUBE VALLEY & 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 will 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 hereabouts... 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, egrets and many other wetland species, including Pygmy Cormorant. In autumn, many of these birds should still be present and there is also a chance of seeing species such as Red-necked and Black-necked Grebes, Osprey, Whiskered and White-winged Terns or even Little Bittern.

Our destination this evening is the comfortable Pelican Lodge hotel, in the small town of Vetren. 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 perhaps 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 British Airways’ early evening flight home from Bucharest, we will not only benefit from a much shorter journey than having to drive all the way back from Vetren to Sofia, but we should also 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-backed shrike P MURRAY_PM-iMAGES.JPG
Red-backed Shrike is a numerous migrant, with seemingly (at times) every bush adorned with a juvenile © Pete Murray, PM-iMAGES

WHAT TO EXPECT
An 8-day birdwatching tour to Bulgaria’s Black Sea coast in autumn, 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 variety of species heading south along this 'Secret Flyway' is astonishing.

Spending one night at Stara Zagora, 5 nights at the coast and one in the Danube Valley, this classic autumn 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. All in all, we can expect 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, any 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 good and comfortable hotels, well situated for the best autumn birding.

We break our journey from Sofia to the Black Sea Coast with an overnight stop at a good hotel in Stara Zagora, followed by 5 nights in two comfortable tourist hotels along the Black Sea coast (2 nights Pomorie, 3 nights Kavarna). Our final night is at Pelican Lodge in Vetren, in the Danube River 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.

Ground Transport  By minibus with local driver.

calandra lark chachuna Georgia 040518-1.jpg
Small numbers of Calandra Lark remain on the coastal steppe near Balgarevo © Brian Small

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