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The main Bulgaria adventure was a Wings / Sunbird trip while our UK pre-trip extension was a North Kent Birding adventure . We decided that since we would have to fly over at least a day early to catch the group flight on the 19th, why not do some birding in the UK with Andy if he was available? That would give us a chance to get our legs under us as well.
16/17-May-07 : After leaving work and picking up Lynn, we dropped my car at Pacifico Ford at 16:00 and where as chance would have it we met the Murphys. We all checked in and made it through security, exchanged some money and grabbed a bit to eat at the airport and did what you inevitably do when you travel and that is “hurry up and wait”. Around 17:15 a thunderstorm rolled through the area. It lasted about 90 minutes and while it didn’t really delay our boarding the plane, which we did more or less on time at 18:45. It did back up traffic and at Philadelphia International Airport, it doesn’t take much. We left the gate at 19:10 and slowly taxied to our takeoff position. We were finally on our way at 20:45. Fortunately the pilot was able to make up about half of the delay and we only arrived an hour late at London Heathrow at 08:10, made it through customs, gathered our luggage and met Andy at 09:30.
It was slightly overcast and thanks to the morning’s rush hour traffic it took us 3 hours to make it to Gillingham and the Premier Travel Inn where we dropped our bags, grabbed a sandwich and headed off birding. As we parked the car, a dunnock perched on the fence. Now Andy and I had to laugh given how much we struggled for this common songbird on my two previous visits. The plan as it was, was to head to Riverside Park and then to the Isle of Sheppey for the remainder of the day. We arrived at Riverside Park at approximately 12:30 and spent nearly 2 hours here walking the paths, checking the hedgerows and watching the Swale River. One of the first birds we saw was a robin and the ubiquitous wood pigeon. We also had chaffinch, magpie, oystercatcher, black-headed gull, blackcap, cuckoo, and shelduck.
En route we had gadwall, shoveler, red-legged partridge, moorhen, lapwing, redshank, common ringed plover, meadow pipit, skylark and yellow wagtail. At the car park area there are two ponds you can observe as well as several good size trees. In and around the ponds were a garganey, pochards, tufted ducks, pied avocets and a black-tailed godwit. In one of the trees next to the ponds was a little owl and in the fields near the car park were grey partridge and pied wagtail.
A stop at the Capel Fleet Lookout was good for marsh harrier, pheasant, reed warbler and more wagtails. At the actual Harty Ferry Inn, there wasn’t much to see on the Swale River it self but we did play hide-n-seek with a wren and a Cetti’s warbler. At the end of the game I believe we all saw the wren and we all saw the warbler flying from one clump of bushes to another. While we certainly heard the warbler’s explosive song and would become even more familiar with that song at Grove Ferry tomorrow, to say we saw the stalker would be stretching it for me. Of course when I would recount this tale and the story to the folks on the main Bulgaria trip they would tell me that’s about what one should expect with a Cetti’s. Well for my lifer look, I want at least a glimpse of the darn thing perched.
Finally at 19:15 we decided to call it a day and head back to the motel and officially check in. We arrived back in Gillingham at 19:45, had dinner at the Honourable Pilot before calling it a day. We spent the night at the Premier Travel Inn in Gillingham.
After parking the car and getting ourselves situated, one of the first birds we saw was a sedge warbler. With its dark cap and white supercilium, a sedge warbler actually is rather distinctive. We also soon added a pair of common teal, little grebe, blue tits and bearded tits as we walked around the east flood. We also managed better looks at reed bunting than we had the day before as well as side-by-side comparison of reed and sedge warblers. After completing the east flood loop, we walked the west flood. At the entrance to this path we had an even less cooperative Cetti’s warbler than yesterdays, mistle and song thrush, and goldfinch. The two common cranes that had been reported late in the day at Elmley (after we had left) were briefly seen by Andy, Bill and Naomi over the far pasture. From the hide in this loop a distant greenshank was seen. Of course skylarks and redshanks were observed in the west flood.
From here we went to Swanton Lane in hopes of Nightingale and while one was singing we never could find it. We did manage to see a garden warbler. A smashing nondescript brown warbler with no obvious field marks just as it states in the field guide. We also had great and coal tits, and chiffchaff before moving on to Stodmarsh.
Grove Ferry was our last stop and we added house martin to the group trip list as well as sand martin and ruddy duck. At the one hide we attempted to outwait another Cetti’s warbler. Goodness knows we heard this one, saw it move through the leaves and have no question as to its existence or whether it is nesting there or not but even after 15-20 minutes I can’t honestly say I saw the blasted thing! I figured this was one I’d have to give back to the birding gods. You could even see on the side of the path where people had sat to try to outwait this guy. Finally at 16:45 we left Grove Ferry and headed to the Crown Plaza. It took us about 90 minutes to get there. We checked in, found out when the shuttle bus would leave to get us to Terminal 1 the next morning and had dinner. We spent the night at the Crown Plaza Hotel London Heathrow.
Final bird list for this visit for MQS is in the table below. At least several other species were seen by the others, specifically the common cranes seen briefly at Oare Marshes; House Martin at Stodmarsh and the Cetti’s Warbler also at Oare and Stodmarsh. The Cetti’s was never seen satisfactorily by me for a first look although I certainly know its call.
The Sunbird trip officially begins today.
19-May-07 We got up early and headed to Terminal 1 to catch our flight to Sofia. In order to be at Terminal 1 at 06:00 we had to catch a 05:20 shuttle bus, yikes! As you would expect traveling with Bill, Naomi and Lynn not only were we all prompt but so was the bus and we were at Heathrow within 10 minutes. When we tried to check in, we had a slight problem because of some glitch with the Sunbird booking so after sorting that out with a very pleasant and helpful BA customer service agent we went through security at 06:30, grabbed some breakfast and proceeded to do that airport thing one more time and waited. We met the group at the gate and boarded the plane at 08:20 local time and took of at 08:50. The captain indicated it would take 2 hours and 40 minutes of flying time and we touched down in Sofia at 13:35 local time. We made it through customs, gathered our bags and met Stoycha (apparently we wouldn’t be meeting up with Nikolay for another day), loaded up our bus and headed off on our way by 14:20. All of this was slightly delayed by a white stork soaring overhead. After all, this was a birding trip wasn’t it?
As we were leaving the airport, James gave us a 10-minute introductory speech on the “basic rules” of the workings of the trip. It was kind of nice to have it actually spelled out even though all but one of us had been on an organized trip before but at least we were all “clear” on how things were to work. There was one change of some significance and that was where we’d be staying tonight but even that wasn’t really all that significant as they hotel was supposedly nicer, just a bit of a longer drive from the airport. Therefore instead of having a 4 hour drive ahead of us we had a 5 hour drive. But we would be making some birding/pit stops along the way. Once we got outside of Sofia the countryside was rather rural and pleasant. It was an overcast day and a precursor and the less than spectacular weather we were to have for the first several days of the tour. James was calling out some of the birds we were passing at 75 km/hr but other than storks and hooded crows they were dots to us at the back of the bus.
From 15:45-16:00 we were at a rest area which consisted of a McDonald’s, petrol station and local concession stand. We bought food from the local stand and used the McDonald’s facilities and birded the grounds and agricultural fields: great reed warbler, red-backed shrike, house martin, swift, barn swallow, tree and house sparrow, raven, starling, black-headed bunting and by some crested lark. As we had lots of ground to cover, we couldn’t linger so we had to push off. Our next stop was up in the Rhodopi Mountains amongst some evergreens. Here we had willow, coal and crested tits. Willow tits sound very much like our chickadees and compared to coal tits have a shiny black caps and tiny bib. This opportunity to stretch one’s legs and leave your mark on the Bulgarian countryside lasted from 17:25-17:55.
Because we had such good luck with the wallcreeper we tried for nutcracker in the Vodmypat Pass before lunch. It was about 11:00 when we left the gorge. It really started to rain as we left and before we walked into the pass we needed to let the rain ease up. Once the rain did ease up we spent about 90 minutes birding in this area. Although it took awhile and our look was fleeting at a single nutcracker we had one respond. While we trawled for nutcracker, we had a pair of bullfinch and one grey-headed woodpecker. Back at the bus we had serin, pallid swifts, and hobby. On the drive back toward our restaurant for lunch we had a dipper.
We met Nikolay at lunch today. Lunch was a fish fry of local trout. At 13:45 we started the drive to Kroumovgrad. At 16:40 at an unspecified river we stopped to stretch our legs and had three black storks feeding on sand bars in the river, a common sandpiper, rock bunting and jay here. Twenty minutes later we were back on the bus and at 19:30 we had finally made it to Kroumovgrad. Dinner was at 20:15. We did a two day checklist before calling it a night and returning to our rooms which were “Spartan” at best. We spent the night at the Hotel Ahrida
The plans today was to go to the vulture feeding station and raptor watching in the area and then do some landing birding as time allowed. Given the weather, no self-respecting vulture or raptor would be out so we would have to go land birding in the rain. We therefore headed to the Kula Valley. By the time we got there it was pouring down and we just sat it out for a few minutes in the bus. But ultimately, the sun wouldn’t come out until 16:45 so we put on our rain gear, grabbed our umbrellas and made the best of it.
In the immediate area where we parked the bus was a white stork’s nest complete with baby storks and Spanish sparrows subletting space. At this first stop we didn’t get too wet and had European nuthatch, roller, blackcap, spotted flycatcher, cuckoo, green woodpecker and goldfinch. Not bad for a rainy morning. It really started to come down again so we moved up the road to try a spot for western rock nuthatch but if they were in the nest hole, they were smart enough to stay inside. After 45 minutes here, we tried another known nuthatch nesting area further up the valley. Again we dipped on the nuthatch but had some better luck with other passerines: cirl and black-headed buntings, eastern black-eared wheatear, (rufous-tailed) rock thrush and chukar as well as the usual collection of swallows. It was now 11:45 and the idea of a picnic lunch was quickly put aside for lunch back at the restaurant at the hotel.
After lunch we did go to the vulture feeding station and Studen Kladenetz from 14:45-18:45. The rain eventually stopped around 16:30 and we did finally have raptors soaring and good birding conditions. Finally as things came to life we had both griffon and Egyptian vultures soaring, honey and common buzzards, a couple black kites, a northern wheatear, a tawny pipit, hoopoe, lesser spotted woodpecker and to close out the day a pair of western rock nuthatches!!
Dinner was at 20:15 and most of us made an abbreviated Scops owl try along the bridge along the River Krumovica. Between the cars and rain starting again, we were not a very enthusiastic group. The weather did probably cost us a species or two (black vulture specifically comes to mind) but at the end of the day we got just about everything we should have and if you had told anyone of us we’d have had such a good day 12 hours earlier we would have laughed at you. We spent the night at the Hotel Ahrida
At 10:10-10:30 we stopped at Leskovets, which is the Isabelline wheatear spot. We also had our first alpine swift and lesser spotted eagle of the trip here as well. Around 11:00 we had a light morph booted eagle (sharp, squared-off tail, 2-tone wings), long-legged buzzard (dark carpel patches and cinnamon tail no matter the color morph). A bit later we had a pair of eastern imperial eagles soaring and eventually perched. I believe I understood Nikolay to say there are only 18-20 nesting pairs of these birds in Bulgaria. We had a picnic lunch from 12:20 to 13:45 in a meadow with a great view. Lunch consisted of cheese, sausage, bread, apples, tomatoes, chocolate bars and displaying calandra larks, bee-eaters, stonechats and black-headed buntings.
We still have over 60 miles to go to our hotel in Pomorie. On the way there we had Montagu’s harriers over the farm fields and then in an oak wood lot an olive tree warbler, masked shrike and ortolan’s bunting. From 17:40 to 18:20 we checked out one of the many overviews of Mandra Lake and had our first good views of yellow-legged gull as well as the first views of pygmy cormorant and Dalmatian pelican. As we drove passed the salt pans outside of town we had squacco and night heron at 50+km/hr. We arrived at the hotel at 18:55, checked into our rooms and had an hour before dinner at 20:00 to clean-up. We spent the night at the Lagun Hotel.
At 08:00 we departed to bird the Bourgasko Lakes area (the largest wetlands area in Bulgaria). Our first stop was at Vaya Lake from 8:30-9:00 where we had both Dalmatian and white pelicans, great and pygmy cormorants, a garganey, little bittern, moorhen, black tern and several spoonbills. The stop was right along the main highway and hardly scenic or aesthetic and like many places we’d visit probably somewhat typical when you think of a former eastern-block country but the birds are here because there is a still lot of habitat that hasn’t been ruined yet. From this stop we moved to Mandra Lake and worked our way around its vast shores and environs. It is far more rural and un-developed.
After making sure everyone enjoyed the starlings we finally made our way up the hillside. We had a perched lesser spotted eagle, sand martins, another garganey, whiskered tern and skylark. The eagle was a forbearer of a raptor flight that would come once the sun would warm things up later in the day. When we made our way back to the bus our picnic was being set up while we went looking for penduline tit. We found the tit and great reed warblers. Lunch was usual fixings although the variety of cheese and sausage changed from day to day. Not sure when or where the guys did the shopping but that is one of the joys of being a tour participant and not a tour leader.
After lunch we kept circling the lake and checking wooded areas for woodpeckers, the skies for raptors and the waterways for waterfowl. We never had any luck with woodpeckers other than great spotted but we did have a few short-toed treecreepers. In one of the more open areas we did some serious hawk watching as we caught some of the north bound migration of honey buzzards (100+), one short-toed eagle, eighteen lesser spotted eagles and common buzzards (50). As the thermals were rising flocks of storks and pelicans were also migrating although this raptor migration was the most impressive. We ended the day along a different stretch of the Pomorie salt pans than we started the day getting back to the hotel at 18:40. We would finally have some birds to check off on page three of the checklist: oystercatcher, stilt, avocet, stint, grey and Kentish plover, marsh and curlew sandpipers. Dinner was back at the Lagun Hotel where we spent another night.
When we left these salt pans we drove to Goritca. We spent time the majority of the day in this woodlot looking for middle spotted woodpecker and semi-collared flycatcher. We also had lunch at the restaurant here. We spent from 10:45 to 12:30 initially looking for the woodpecker and the flycatcher as well as seeing whatever else was in the woods. Chaffinch were of course plentiful and great spotted woodpeckers were evident as were nuthatch, sport-toed treecreeper, loads of blue tits, another sombre tit and a marsh tit. We did have a female semi-collared flycatcher and a glimpse of a male and realized that they were using one of the nest boxes. From their behavior it did not appear that they had young to feed so we figured we would come back after lunch and we went to check on a second nest box that had shown signs of activity 10-14 days earlier. While we didn’t see any flycatchers at nest box No. 2 we did see hawfinch in the area and green woodpecker.
We took a lunch break from 13:00-14:00. On our way back to next box No.1, Richard spotted a middle spotted woodpecker so that problem was quickly solved once everyone got on it. While we were observing next box No. 1, Nikolay found a pair of flycatchers actively interacting at a third nearby nest box. Whether this was just an active pair or they had young to feed, the pair at nest box No. 3 was definitely the most active of the three nest boxes and we all could see these birds and setup scopes on them. As some birding axiom would have it as we headed back to the bus, we had at least 3 more semi-collared flycatchers and another middle spotted woodpecker along the path. Having spent several hours looking we now had them practically coming to us. Oh well, we had our two main target birds and at 15:45 we loaded back on the bus and made the final push to Karvarna.
After an early dinner at 18:45 we walked back up the road to the same spot where we had scanned before and all of a sudden Lynn goes, “I think I see it, no never mind, yes I see it, no I don’t, can I borrow a scope?” Well, the end of all the second guessing was she had found the owl! Pancho had seen the owl here 10 days earlier and the blasted thing may have been here earlier just safely hidden in a crevice or behind a bush or somewhere else, who knows. Nikolay said there are 5 pairs of eagle owls along the 10km of cliffs near Karvarna. It was a little after 20:00 when Lynn first found the owl. We watched it change perches a few times and then ultimately glide over the cliff out of view as darkness fell. While all of this was going on we did a little scope comparison of the Swarovski 65mm, 80mm and Leica 77mm scopes. They all are very good and it isn’t until you get in very low light conditions that the larger objective lens scopes show their superiority. We then tried for Scops owl and nightjar but dipped out on both. We spent the night at the White Lagoon Hotel
Back at the campground we came upon one of our target species relatively quickly when a pied wheatear perched on one of the roof joists. After scanning the shoreline and the coast a bit we headed into the marsh for our next target, Paddyfield’s warbler. The warbler reaches its western limit in Bulgaria and before James even had to think about hitting his tape, a pair of them perched up on the reeds just as pretty as you could want. In fact, they sat up there next to a reed bunting for that we could use for a reference point. We all were able to put them in our scopes and get multiple views before we moved closer and this allowed the photographers to get some very decent pictures. So far, we had two of the main target birds for Duranulak nailed with little effort. We then continued to scan the reeds when a pair of penduline tits cooperated as did a Savi’s warbler. The Savi’s has a very insect-like trill call.
Around 11:00 we made a move to Shabla Lake and while driving through town we stumbled across a Syrian woodpecker. Bill and I jumped out of the bus and the last two people on the tour finally ticked this one off. See I knew if it was meant to be it would happen. Clearly, it wasn’t meant to be for some of the warbler species but you have to throw something back to the birding gods on these trips. At the lake we had 51 ferruginous ducks; squacco, purple, grey and night herons; little egrets, avocets, black-winged stilts and a common crane soared overhead (caught up with that one from the UK part of the trip). We also had a pair of stonechats. Somehow across the lake, through the haze, Richard spied a citrine wagtail making it a four wagtail trip (plus two subspecies that someday might be split) which isn’t too shabby. We also had an Elanora’s falcon and lunch here. All told this was a rather productive two hours!
From 14:00-15:00 we did some more seawatching from the Yailata Cliffs. The scenery was spectacular, there were butterflies to entice those so inclined and we had more pied wheatears, another tawny pipit, several hoopoes, rosy starlings and calandra larks everywhere to occupy us. From 15:40-17:20 we spent time on Cape Kaliakra proper. We enjoyed more spectacular scenery, the ruins here, shag, eye-to-eye views of alpine swift, and a few too many tourists enjoying their holiday weekend but again no seabirds. Still it is a beautiful place. We were back at the hotel at 18:15 birded the grounds a bit. At the football pitch out back we had a barred warbler, golden oriole and our resident shrike before retiring to the room to clean up for dinner. We spent the night at the White Lagoon Hotel.
Whether it was the heat or lack of activity, the group was lagging so we called it a day somewhat early but that was fine. Because the hotel we’d be staying at was rather small, a few of us (Naomi and Bill, John, Richard, Lynn and I) would all be put up in two guest houses rather in the hotel. Truth be told it was probably the nicest room we had the entire trip. It certainly was the most spacious even if the ones in Pomorie and Kavarna were more modern. So what if we had to walk a few 100 meters to the hotel proper for meals. Dinner was at 19:30. Besides we could have run up a bill at the local tavern if we had wanted to do so. We spent the night at the Hotel Lalimaritsa.
From 9:15 to 10:30 we birded the Nova Cerna marsh where we did battle with river and marsh warblers. Some did get on the river warbler although I didn’t. Initially almost no one got on the marsh warbler. When it was time to leave, a pair of marsh warblers decided to become cooperative for a few of us during a pit stop, while a different marsh warbler perched up for the rest of the group back near the bus. The marsh also had multiple great reed warblers, black-headed wagtails and finally a wood pigeon. After tripping over wood pigeons everywhere in Kent, several of us had to ask to have them pointed out this next to last day so that we had them on our “Bulgarian List”. It was then time to move on. We then had a picnic lunch along an un-named river from 12:45 to 14:00. It was quiet bird-wise except for a fly-by kingfisher that made a split-second appearance and a water snake.
After breakfast we departed at 07:45. At 08:00 we dropped Pancho off in Gabrovo so he could catch a bus and we continued on our way to Sofia. We made one or two pit stops enroute. We arrived at the airport around 11:15, went inside to have a light lunch before checking in and then started that airport waiting process all over again. We took off at 15:15 local time and arrived in London at 15:25 local time. Made record time getting through passport control and waited forever for our bags to get offloaded from the plane. When they finally did we said good-bye to everyone and checked into the Crown Plaza at 16:50. Dinner was at 19:00. We spent the night at the Crown Plaza Hotel London Heathrow