Part one – the north-east
Bulgaria in winter tends to be cold, with temperatures often a few degrees below freezing for days on end, and snow more likely than rain. The climate along the Black Sea coast, however, tends to be less severe. So tens of thousands of geese and other wildfowl spend the winter here.
We arranged a visit in February – planning it at fairly short notice – making use of local knowledge in the form of Branta Tours
Pavel Simeonov met us at Varna airport. He is a big man, with a big voice and a big personality. It’s an hour or so drive from there to the Branta Birding Lodge at Lake Durankulak. Pavel and his wife Tatyana run the lodge – and she provided excellent meals, packed lunches and great company too. You don’t have to go on one of their tours to stay there – there were two Danish birdwatchers (a father and son who knew someone we also knew in Denmark) staying there for a few days, and after them, two French couples. Pavel doles out his knowledge of the local birds and the birdwatching sites, salted with politics and music – he is a professional musician and we were treated to a brief impromptu concert one evening.
But this first afternoon, he stopped at the lodge only long enough to collect his telescope. Then we were off to see the red-breasted geese. Pavel was afraid that they could head back north at any time, so we had better make sure we saw them as soon as possible. As it turned out, we saw them most days.
On subsequent days, Pavel took us birdwatching at all the local sites, searching for as many species as possible. There was no set itinerary – our routes and destinations were dictated by the weather, and wherever Pavel thought would be best at the time. He was also in contact with other local birdwatchers, so had extra information on what was where. We never quite knew where we were going to end up, and often we called in at the same places several times because there might be something more interesting to see there.
Red-breasted geese nest on the Siberian tundra, from the Taymyr Peninsula, eastwards. In winter they move south-west, to the shores of the Black and Caspian Seas. Counting birds in both areas is difficult, both physically and politically. Population estimates vary from around 60,000 in the mid-1950s to 56,000 in 2015.
In Europe, opportunities to see this species are limited – pretty much to the Black Sea coasts of Bulgaria, Romania and Turkey. As winters become milder, the birds don’t seem to be coming so far south. Pavel said that 20,000 or more were regularly seen at Durankulak in winter, but have declined in the last decade or so, and if they weren’t around when we got there, he would take us to the Danube Delta in Romania. As it happened, a few hundred red-breasted geese joined the thousands of greater white-fronted geese a few days before we arrived, and left a few days after we did.
All the geese were always nervous, and Pavel always approached cautiously – driving slowly along a farm track and often not going past the start of the field the geese were feeding in. Although the hunting season had ended at the end of January, poaching was still a problem. Pavel gave careful and strict instructions to birdwatchers, but the hunters were beyond his control. The local staff of Birdlife International also did their best, but had a huge area to cover.
Photographing the geese in this field wasn’t easy – often the sun was in the wrong direction, or the light too dull, or the geese too far away. We had better luck later in the day when someone or something disturbed them so they would fly between the field and the Durankulak Ezero (lake). Predators big enough to tackle geese included white-tailed and great spotted eagles, which we saw at a great distance.
The migration of red-breasted geese is currently being studied by satellite tracking. Several birds have been fitted with GPS devices that transmit information every day. This allows their movements to be followed in detail – through Georgia, Kazakhstan, and then north to the Russian Arctic coast. This also encourages interest in local wildlife in schools etc en route. For more information, check the project website.
Durankulak is a natural lake, separated from the Black Sea by a sand bar. It is a haven for thousands of migratory birds passing each year on the way to their breeding territories or remaining to spend the winter. In winter the variety of waterfowl is incredible: Black-necked Grebes, Pygmy Cormorants, Mute and Whooper Swans, Pochards, Tufted Ducks, Red-breasted Mergansers, Yellow-legged Gulls, and, of course, the tens of thousands of mostly White-fronted and Red-breasted Geese.
The cold weather that had driven the geese here, had also caused the lake to freeze over – all except for a fairly small area kept open by roosting wildfowl. Pavel drove us along the sandbar, and then around the rest of the lake – the shore isn’t all accessible, and often a telescope was needed to distinguish the duck species.
Then there were the marsh harriers, hen harriers, common and long-legged buzzards, merlin, and the white-tailed and great spotted eagles.
Out on the Black Sea, we found Yellow-legged, Caspian, Black-headed and Mediterranean Gulls, Black-throated divers (loons), and even a short-eared owl trying to make landfall, although the gulls forced it back over the open water (hopefully it found its way through further along the coast).
At the north end of the sandspit is a campsite, closed for the winter, but the gate was open and Pavel drove straight in. The buildings, trees, old caravans, etc all provided some welcome shelter from the wind, and the birds took advantage. The main attraction was the Syrian Woodpeckers – another speciality of south-eastern Europe that we haven’t seen before. Pavel was determined we should get plenty of photos of a pair that seemed to be collecting acorns from the ground and caching them in holes in tree-trunks.
Another speciality of the campsite was a pair of little owls. Pavel pointed out the building they nested in, but we didn’t see them on the first visit. The second time I had a glimpse of something that didn’t look metallic on top of a tractor. We stopped and backed-up. I must have been mesmerised by the pair of gorgeous yellow eyes staring back at me, as I just didn’t get around to taking any photos until it flew off, leaving me with a picture of just its tail.
The whole coastline is dotted with archaeological evidence of ancient European settlements, many of which are preserved as national monuments. This one is almost an island at Durankulak, and is considered to be one of the earliest settlements.
For more information, see Durankulak Lake – Important Bird Area
Shabla Lake complex
A few kilometres to the south of Durankulak is the Shabla Lake complex, another site of European importance for the conservation of rare and endangered species and habitats. The coastal freshwater and brackish lakes, sandy beaches and reedbeds are used by thousands of birds as roosts during migration or while wintering. We didn’t see much on the lakes – though as Pavel said, they were worth visiting repeatedly because you never knew just what might turn up.
One day we spent a couple of hours on the Black Sea at Shabla beach in case a Pallas’ Gull flew past. Apparently, the conditions were just right (brisk northerly wind at this time of year), so we ate our lunch in the shelter of a cabin, while Pavel watched from the car and let us know when he saw one approaching. It really was only the one – and it flew nice and close along the shore, showing off its almost complete breeding plumage – the head will soon be completely black.
Of course, there were other birds flying past, gulls mostly, a grey heron, and way out over the sea, a long line of Bewick’s swans heading north.
For more information, see Shabla Lake – Important Bird Area
South of Shabla, the coast changes from sand to cliffs. Often the cliff-tops were scrubby grassland, the soil too thin for growing crops. It was the only place we saw livestock – a goat herder (complete with mobile phone) and his flock. There are several National Monuments – sites of historical importance – along with oil pumps extracting the black stuff from somewhere below. It proved a good place for larks, pipits, and birds that hunt them such as harriers and buzzards.
The cliffs themselves were home to seabirds such as the local subspecies of shag Gulosus aristotelis desmarestii which lives in the Mediterranean and Black Seas. It is said to be smaller and paler than the regular shags we see at home. Nos (Cape) Kaliakra holds the only Bulgarian breeding colony of this species.
Nos Kaliakra sticks out southwards 2km into the Black Sea, and is probably the only place along this coast where you can see the sun rising and setting over the sea – elsewhere it sets over the land. It is littered with legends, historic buildings and spectacular views of the coast. The views now include lines of wind turbines, taking advantage of the incessant sea breezes.
Just to the north of the Cape, a deep ravine provides shelter. Pavel stopped here in the early evening to watch for eagle owls. I heard one as soon as we got out of the car, and we soon picked it out, as it sat conveniently on a cliff top silhouetted against the skyline.
Scenically, this north-east corner of Bulgaria doesn’t have much to offer. Away from the Black Sea shore, the land is gently undulating, huge areas of arable farming, and some areas of sparse scrubby grassland. Occasionally, a shelter-belt of trees – usually poplars – breaks up the landscape. Mostly, they seemed devoid of wildlife, yet harriers and buzzards appeared to be abundant. There must have been something hiding in the vegetation – small mammals and birds – to keep the raptors happy.
The natural vegetation here would probably have been extensive grassland, with patches of scrub and trees. It should hold a wealth of invertebrates and wildflowers as well as the birds. Probably in spring and summer, much of it still does – so we need to visit again, at a different time of year.
We did come across a large flock of Calandra Larks, and on another day, smaller numbers but close to the track, convinced it was spring and time to sing and squabble over territories.
Occasionally there are patches of woodland – often recently planted, perhaps orchards. One of these patches, Pavel told us, was the last remnant of ancient oak wood in the area. A tiny remnant. It contained few birds at this time of year, but a quick exploration on a sunny day gave us a few small plants, a marmalade hoverfly and two red admiral butterflies. Spring really must be on the way!
Pavel took us to a couple of small villages. One had been more or less abandoned since the end of communism, and the overgrown gardens and orchards could support a range of birds, especially in summer. We looked for Syrian Woodpeckers and Hawfinches here, but with only limited success for the former.
Another village, still fully occupied by humans, had a few trees that long-eared owls found attractive. These owls roost communally, often in traditional sites, outside the breeding season. We took a few photos, not wanting to disturb them, but it was only when looking at the photos later that we discovered we weren’t photographing just one bird – there were always two or three others hidden amongst the branches. Pavel mentioned counting over thirty leaving one group of trees in the past. I’ve heard long-eared owls in the wild before, but this was the first time I had actually seen them.
Woodland at Batova
For a change of scenery, and for a change of birds, Pavel took us to the forests around Batovo, an hour or so drive to the south-west of Durankulak. Bulgaria is blessed with a variety of woodpeckers, and with the weather turning spring-like, they may be beginning to display.
Grey-headed woodpeckers are often found along riverine woodland, and our first stop was on bare ground at the edge of Batovo village. We heard the woodpeckers – Pavel is good at imitating their calls and getting a response – but did not see them here. We tried another place, a bit more remote, and after a few minutes, watched a bird high in a tree.
Another species we were looking for here was the hawfinch. Pavel had taken us to several places where we might see one, and at last we struck lucky. A single bird, high in a tree, for just a few seconds – long enough to get a single photo.
Long-legged buzzards are widespread across parts of Africa and central Asia, but within Europe, you are likely to see them only in northern Greece, Bulgaria and Turkey.
Visiting the area
While Bulgaria is fairly easily accessible, the main problem for the independent traveller is that road signs are in the Cyrillic alphabet (although on major roads, some may have Latin script too).
Finding wildlife, especially if you have limited time, may therefore be best achieved by joining an organised tour.
Branta Tours is the company we used.
Neophron Tours provides a bird-guide service to these sites in Bulgaria. I haven’t used them myself, but they were recommended by friends.
Birdwatching Bulgaria is a branch of a Danish tour operator, and offers a limited range of tours.
Wild Echo is a Bulgarian company that has been operating for 15 years, and provides a variety of standard trips as well as tailor-made trips.
Many nature tour companies based outside of Bulgaria also use guides provided by one of these companies.
Wikitravel provides a lot of information for the independent traveller to Bulgaria, and includes a section on the Black Sea Coast
Click on the covers for more information.
Malcolm Rymer’s fascination with waterfowl draws him to coastal Bulgaria each February to study the geese on their wintering grounds.
Many thousands of European White-fronted geese, wintering wildfowl, grebes, divers, larks, woodpeckers, owls, swans, pelicans, buzzards and eagles all feature in these videos.
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One thought on “Winter birdwatching in Bulgaria”
I’ve never been a big bird watcher but if I was, this definitely looks like the place to bird watch.
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