UK-Bulgaria Trip Report

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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.

We then headed to the Isle of Sheppey where we would spend the rest of the day from 16:00-19:00. We headed straight to the Elmley Nature Reserve of the RSPB before moving on to Shellness and ending the day at the Harty Ferry Inn. At Elmley, you have to drive into the car park before walking the paths to the hides. Because of the weather and time of day we had decided that we wouldn’t be making the walk to the hides but the drive in was still well worth it. Over time the birds have become used to cars along the road as long as you drive slowly and follow the rules and don’t get out of your vehicle.

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.

Well, we pulled ourselves away from here and checked out the shoreline and muscle beds near the private enclave of Shellness. We had more oystercatchers here a curlew, a few turnstones and one bar-tailed godwit. In the weedy roadside were a few linnets and 2 reed buntings. It was getting late and it had been a long day for all of us including Andy so we headed off to Harty Ferry Road.

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.

18-May-07 Andy met us at 07:00 as we left our bags in the office for safe keeping while we went birding. He had arranged for this and this was helpful so that we didn’t have to trip over them in the car nor worry about theft. From here we went to McDonald’s for breakfast. Oh how times have changed, now that the “gas-n-go” doesn’t do breakfast baps anymore. Almost makes it not worth coming to Gillingham, ALMOST! While we ate, Andy quickly reformulated the plan and we were heading straight to Oare marshes. Even though the shorebird migration was more or less over, this still was our best bet for birds this morning. We spent the morning at Oare until close to 11:00 and walked the loop of both the east and west floods.

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.

We took a good 2 hour walk around Stodmarsh and were well rewarded. As you might guess by the name there is a marsh here along with some upland habitat and hedgerows. We managed to scare up a better look at a garden warbler, although it still was nondescript. From one of the hides, there were a rather large number of swifts hawking insects and amongst them were 8-12 hobbies. That made for a nice sight. On our return loop through the wet wooded area, we came across a great spotted woodpecker, wren, blackcap, two long-tailed tits, great tits and a treecreeper.

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.

Little Grebe Black-tailed Godwit Lesser Whitethroat
Great Crested Grebe Bar-tailed Godwit Common Whitethroat
Cormorant Curlew Sedge Warbler
Little Egret Whimbrel Reed Warbler
Grey Heron Turnstone Chiffchaff
Mute Swan Black-headed Gull Great Tit
Greylag Goose Mediterranean Gull Coal Tit
Canada Goose Herring Gull Blue Tit
Brent Lesser black-backed Gull Long-tailed Tit
Shelduck Common Tern Bearded Tit
Mallard Rock Dove Treecreeper
Gadwall Stock Dove Magpie
Shoveler Wood Pigeon Jay
Common Teal Collared Dove Jackdaw
Garganey – Elmley Cuckoo Rook
Pochard Little Owl Carrion Crow
Tufted Duck Great Spotted Woodpecker Starling
Ruddy Duck Swift House Sparrow
Marsh Harrier Skylark Chaffinch
Kestrel Barn Swallow Goldfinch
Hobby Sand Martin Linnet
Red-legged Partridge Meadow Pipit Greenfinch
Grey Partridge Pied Wagtail Reed Bunting
Pheasant Yellow Wagtail Corn Bunting
Moorhen Wren  
Coot Dunnock  
Oystercatcher Robin  
Pied Avocet Song Thrush  
Common Ringed Plover Mistle Thrush  
Lapwing Blackbird  
Redshank Garden Warbler -Swanton Lane  
Greenshank Blackcap – Riverside Park  

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.

A short way down the road from here we came to a lake where we had black tern (different subspecies from North America), white wagtail, and red-rumped swallow. At 19:10 we pulled into the hotel’s car park where we were greeted not only by a little rain falling but also calling cuckoo, chiffchaff and a black redstart at the wood pile. Dinner was at 20:00 and from our room balcony we could see crag martin, pallid swifts and yellowhammer. Dinner was a nice bowl of soup and a Bulgarian version of beef stew and dessert. We spent the night the Hotel Dabrash.

20-May-07 Our pre-breakfast walk at 06:30 was more or less rained out which is when the 19th and UK pre-trip started to get written. It’s a good thing too as I felt I was I danger of really falling behind. Okay, that’s trying to put a good spin on the weather situation as no one wants the very first day to be rained out and today is out only chance for wallcreeper so rain or not we will be giving it a go. We still had cuckoo calling, great tit, white wagtail, and black redstart from the balcony again. The rain is really coming down and as long as one doesn’t mind the wind, thunder and lightening it isn’t that bad a day. Breakfast was an assortment of toast, cheese, some processed ham, hard boiled eggs, yogurt, coffee and juice. It would turn out that some version of this was to be breakfast everyday. At 08:30 the rain had lessened and we headed off to Trigrad Gorge and our date with the wallcreeper. As we loaded the bus, a pair of yellowhammers occupied their tree by the pool and a very wet mistle thrush walked on the lawn.

At 09:45 we arrived at the gorge. The first stop didn’t provide us with a wallcreeper and apparently never does but you stop there none the less. It did yield grey wagtail, red-rumped swallow, house martin and crag martin. The 2nd stop is the more reliable stop. So of course someone, not me, asked why not go there straight away? James answered, “We need to build suspense.” Initially, the wallcreeper was rather high up. Fortunately, not everyone got on the bird and by the time they did one of them came down relatively close. This ended up being the favorite bird of everyone on the trip. Interestingly, it wasn’t one of mine in part because it had slipped my mind when I voted and in part because it was one of those “canned events”. I knew we were going to Trigrad Gorge to see wallcreeper and we were going to stay there till we did. Fortunately, it didn’t take hours to do it. As I said when I put my list together, the more common birds were more satisfying to me. Also in the gorge we had blackcap, coal tits and a soaring black stork. While the stork wasn’t close its field marks were diagnostic.

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
21-May-07 We met for a 06:00 bird walk before breakfast along the Krumovica River. We lasted until 06:40 when common sense suggested that we didn’t need to get soaked before breakfast as it started to rain fairly steadily. In the forty minutes or so we were out we managed to get some decent birding in which considering where we were, was somewhat surprising. As we crossed the bridge over the river Krumovica, we had an eastern olivaveous warbler, yet another of the brilliantly plumaged European warblers. In the morning overcast light it was especially colorful. (Note heavy dose of sarcasm here). As we crossed the river we flushed a black stork foraging for its breakfast and a yellow-legged gull flew overhead. The farm fields on the far side of the river held quite a few red-backed shrikes (they seemed to be everywhere we birded), several corn buntings (they were everywhere we birded) and 1 or 2 woodchat shrikes, another eastern olivaceous warbler and a nightingale was out in the open. When the light drizzle turned to rain we headed back for breakfast from 7-8.

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

22-May-07 It was raining even harder this morning so no one went on the pre-breakfast walk. Seemed we all learned our lesson the day before and wanted to at least start the day somewhat dry. Breakfast was at 07:00 and then we loaded up the bus and said our good-byes to Kroumovgrad. The rain had stopped and our first stop was on the way back to Studem Kladenetz from 08:30 to 09:00. We were trying for barred warbler when a golden oriole, roller and bee-eater all perched out in the open to distract at least me from having missed out on the warbler. We had barely gotten loaded up on the bus and moving again when we had two Egyptian vultures perched barely 150 meters from the road. We finally made it to Studen Kladenetz and crossed over the dam before we stopped. We were trawling for sombre tit which we did successfully reel in. We also had hawfinch before setting off as today was a fairly long driving day. Actually we had a few fairly long driving days.

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.
23-May-07 We met just outside the lobby at 06:00 for a walk to the nearby Pomorie salt pans before breakfast. These were just past the football stadium and held a large concentration of terns, mostly sandwich and common with some little. These were also a few avocets and black-winged stilts feedings along the edges of the pans. Several groups of shorebirds were flying around. These were mostly curlew sandpipers with little stints and a couple dunlins mixed in but suffice it to say they were birds on the wing and I was going to hold James to his promises of better looks later in the day at these waders. Distant flocks of shorebirds flying around are not all that satisfying to me. Fortunately, these are all birds I’ve seen before. A few cormorants and great crested grebes were feedings in the deeper areas of the pans. Perched on the pilings were several sub-adult and at least one adult Mediterranean gull. Several crested larks were seen feeding on the path. As we walked back to the hotel for breakfast a flock of 9 ruddy shelducks flew overhead.

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.

At 9:15 the rain started again but we also made a great find as we came across a spur-winged plover and the following conversation between James and Nikolay ensued.
  • James: “Nikolay, How rare are they in Bulgaria?”
  • Nikolay: “I think that may be a Bulgarian first.”
  • James: “That would be pretty rare then!”

The plover was in a marshy area by the side of the road and we could use the bus as a blind and shelter from the rain. This also allowed the photographers in the group to take pictures without scaring the bird off. From this same spot we had a group of 12 collared pratincoles and a purple heron. In a matter of minutes the rain eased off and we all prepared to walk up a small hillside to look down on a cove when Pancho noticed a small flock of rose-colored starlings. Remembering James previous warning about these birds, “When and if we come across rose-colored starlings, don’t dawdle about looking at them because they tend not to stay around long” Well this group of starlings obviously hadn’t heard his lecture because they stayed in that bush for a good long time but that was fine with us.

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.

24-May-07 There was no pre-breakfast bird walk today and breakfast was at 07:00 with a departure at 08:00 for today’s birding. We checked out the salt pans north of town as we headed to Karvarna. Our stop was about 15 minutes outside of town and we spent about sixty minutes here. We had some great looks at curlew sandpipers in alternate plumage, there were approximately 50+ birds here and perhaps twice that many little stints. Again, some of the stints were in striking plumage. There were also a few stilts, some avocets, one ruff, a few common ringed plovers, at least two little ringed plovers and one broad-billed sandpiper. The broad-billed sandpiper was never in really good light or in close but it was obviously longer legged than the stints, had a droopier bill and a dark pectoral band. On at least two occasions, it went in front of some vegetation so that I could see its supercilium clearly. This was one of those times having my own scope paid off.

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.

We arrived at the hotel at 18:15 but only after making a stop to scan the nearby (and I mean nearby) cliff face for eagle owl. We didn’t find the owl, but Nikolay didn’t seem concerned and we were told we’d come back after dinner. We loaded back on the bus and drove the half mile to our hotel.

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
25-May-07 Another morning without a pre-breakfast bird walk but from our balcony we have a pair of lesser grey shrikes and from the veranda of the restaurant there was lesser whitethroat, great tits, fly-by Syrian woodpecker and distant red-necked grebes. I’ll catch-up with the woodpecker sooner or later and am determined to remain philosophical about it. I have no doubts about it. I’ve caught up with just about every other bird on this trip since we’ve arrived in the UK so why start worrying about it now. Besides to start worrying about it would go against my birding mantra of the last 7 years “if I’m meant to see a bird, I’ll see it.”

At 08:00 we departed for Durankulak Lake. As we were pulling into the campground/resort, a beautiful (perhaps that’s redundant but what the heck) black-headed wagtail perched up on a shrub for us. This is one of those subspecies that I’m happy to note for future reference as a potential split when it becomes a new species. The Dutch already have split it out (along with quite a few other subspecies). According to what we learned besides being visually incredibly distinctive, it is geographically isolated and has a very unique voice. Heck, compared to things like pacific-slope and cordilleran flycatchers this is a no-brainer split. I mean this bird is so different from the yellow wagtails we had just seen days earlier in the UK or the ones I’ve seen in the Yukon or Spain. But what do I know?

We would be spending every chance we had today scanning the Black Sea for seabirds (shearwaters, loons and skuas). The water was very calm so we could easily see anything resting on the water and this also made finding cetaceans easy, it may have been poor conditions for finding seabirds. Whatever the reason, we did not ever find any shearwaters or skuas and the only loons we found were distant and not very soul satisfying. We did manage to see several groups of harbor porpoise, bottle-nose and common dolphin throughout the day.

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.

26-May-07 We birded on the grounds of the hotel for 30 minutes before breakfast meeting at 06:30 at the football pitch behind the rooms. We had the usual collection of birds we’d been seeing during our stay here: barred warbler, lesser grey shrike, red-backed shrike, turtle dove, collared dove, golden oriole and a new bird for the trip at least for me although I know we had had them displaying several places earlier, three woodlarks. After a breakfast of Bulgarian eggs (hard fried eggs with paprika, they were very good by the way), we loaded up the bus and started our trek to Silistra. We made a stop for Levant sparrowhawk from 8:15-8:45 (without any luck) and made two more stop en route (one roadside and one in town) before getting to Srebarna Reserve around noon. We spent nearly the next 4 hours at the reserve scanning the lake and the skies. We also enjoyed our picnic lunch here. As we pulled into the reserve we had an adult white-tailed eagle soaring over the lake. On the lake were white and Dalmatian pelicans, both cormorants, whiskered and black terns, all the herons you could expect to see include one great white egret. We continued to scan for Levant sparrowhawk as this had been an area where one had been seen on a previous tour but we weren’t fortunate to see this one. It was sunny and hot, 30 degrees C.

Around 16:00 we left the reserve and went down to the Danube to “do a river watch” and see what was move along it. It took James a bit to orient himself that we were at the same spot that they had gone to last year. Because of the near draught conditions, the water level was far below the previous year’s water level. Once we sorted that out, we sorted out drinks and ice cream and realized that not much was moving along the river.

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.
27-May-07 There was no pre-breakfast walk today. Lynn, Bill, Naomi and I met Richard and John as we walked the back road to the hotel for breakfast. We then walked back and had a spotted flycatcher before we got back to the guest house. We packed our bags and brought them down to the gate so that James and Pancho could get them and load up the bus. We then walked down to the well along the road to wait for the group and the bus. We left around 08:00. Around 09:00 we came to the bee-eater colony that was along the roadside. Using the bus as a blind the photographers went to work. We estimated about 50 pairs of birds in this colony.

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.

At 15:20 we arrived at our hotel in Etara and checked into our rooms. From 16:15-17:00 we walked through the ‘ethnographic’ village. It was very interesting and given the scarcity of bird life it was a nice change of pace.

From there we went to the monastery up the hillside to bird in hopes of black woodpecker. While we dipped out on the woodpecker we did have chiffchaff, willow tit and yellowhammer. Dinner was at 19:45. We spent the night at the Hotel Etara.

28-May-07 We met out in front of the hotel around 06:30 to watch for pallid swifts at eye level and to quote James, “Fully appreciate their pallidity.” We were also hoping for black woodpecker, rumor has it they’ve flown over the hotel in years past. While rejoicing in the swift’s pallidity and hoping for a woodpecker sighting we did enjoy several white wagtails, the best look at and the best looking grey wagtail of the trip for me, a black redstart and house and tree sparrows, house martin and swallows.

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

29-May-07 We had breakfast at the Crown Plaza, caught the shuttle bus to Terminal 1 and then caught the Express train to Terminal 4. After checking in and getting through security we all agreed that next time it would be easier and cheaper to take a cab directly to Terminal 4 and pick up breakfast there. Not that the shuttle bus and train was so difficult but the breakfast at the Crown Plaza was outrageous even using the “this is all part of vacation logic” thinking. Anyway, the plane took off on time, landed 30 minutes early and when all was said and done we had a fantastic trip!