Winter birdwatching in Bulgaria

Why Bulgaria in Winter

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.

The greatest numbers of geese are seen in January and February, but January is still the hunting season, and the birds are often unsettled.  So, February is a better time for a visit.

The northern-most part of the Black Sea coast (near Romania) has been dubbed Bulgaria’s ‘Geeseland’. This is where the main roosts of the geese, the lakes of Shabla and Durankulak, are located. The southern Bulgarian Black Sea also provides wintering grounds for Dalmatian pelicans, pygmy cormorants, various species of ducks, shorebirds, gulls, raptors, owls, woodpeckers, and many smaller birds.

The less severe climate on the southern Bulgarian Black Sea also provides wintering grounds for Dalmatian Pelicans, Pygmy Cormorants, various species of ducks, shorebirds, gulls, raptors, owls, woodpeckers and many smaller birds.

Red-breasted Goose

Shabla Lake complex

Located on the northern part of the Black Sea coast, the Shabla Lake complex is of  European importance for the conservation of rare and endangered habitats.  The coastal freshwater and brackish lakes, sandy beaches and reedbeds are used by thousands of birds as roosts during migration or while wintering.

Located on the Via Pontica – a major bird migration route in Europe – the lake complex attracts a huge number of migratory waterfowl. It is famous for the huge concentrations of red-breasted geese and greater white-fronted geese. These come from the tundra of Europe and Asia to overwinter. The mild winters, coupled with safe roosting lakes and large arable areas where they can feed, bring in about three-quarters of the global population of red-breasted geese (up to 30,000) for the season.

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.

For more information, see Shabla Lake – Important Bird Area

Geese flying out to their feeding grounds at sunrise

Lake Durankulak

Like Shabla, Lake Durankulak 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 etc. but especially the tens of thousands of mostly White-fronted and Red-breasted Geese.  But the top attraction is the flocks of many thousands of wild geese flying off the lake at sunrise. 

For more information, see Durankulak Lake – Important Bird Area

White-headed Duck

Burgas

The wetlands around the city of Burgas form one of Europe’s richest bird areas. One of the biggest attractions in winter however, are the flocks of Pygmy Cormorants and Dalmatian Pelicans resident there, and the hundreds of White-headed Ducks wintering almost every winter on Vaya Lake. Some of the other species expected there are Whooper Swan, Tundra Swan (ssp. bewickii), White-tailed Eagle, Bearded Reedling, Smew, Pallas’s Gull, Slender-billed Gull, Mediterranean Gull and other more common wintering waterbirds. Nearby there are coastal riverine forests and the Eastern Balkan oak forests, which are very good sites for Grey-headed Woodpecker, Lesser Spotted Woodpecker, Middle Spotted Woodpecker, Short-toed Treecreeper, Hawfinch, Cirl Bunting and Sombre Tit.

The Bulgarian Society for the Protection of Birds manages a small reserve and visitor centre at the Poda Reserve where there are trails and hides.

Cinereous (Eurasian Black) Vulture

Eastern Rhodopes

The Eastern part of the Rhodope Mountains is locked between the valleys of the big rivers Arda and Maritsa in southern Bulgaria, near the border with Greece. This area hosts exceptional biodiversity – a result of the mixture of Mediterranean and continental climates. This is the realm of the wolf packs, as one of the densest populations of the Wolf in Bulgaria is found here. The most spectacular birds of the region in winter are the vultures – Eurasian Griffon and Cinereous (Eurasian Black) vultures, which are attracted to a feeding station in the Potochnitsa Hills.


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). And then you have to remember that a shake of the head means ‘yes’ and a nod means ‘no’.

Finding wildlife, especially if you have limited time, may therefore be best achieved by joining an organised tour.

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.

Branta Tours is another company based in Eastern Europe. It also operates the Branta Bird Lodge and conservation centre close to the Durankulak Lake Protected Area.

Wild Echo is a Bulgarian company that has been operating for 15 years, and provide 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


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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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Bear-watching

Bear necessities

It was only a footprint, but it was BIG. I felt the hairs on the back of my neck rise, and the adrenalin starting to pump. The only animal I knew of that size was bear, and bears certainly lived in the area, though at low density and rarely seen.

A second look told me the prints were not that fresh – maybe during the night, or even yesterday. The bear probably was NOT still close by. But we couldn’t help looking around, just in case. And talking loudly – bears usually avoid humans, so best to let them know you are around.

Bob tried to convince me that it was some human pulling a joke, but I think he was actually quite worried about it. Was it coincidence that, while trying to photograph the footprint, I managed to knock the tripod over and damage the camera – beyond repair as it turned out.

We were hiking along a public trail through the Urho Kekkonen in the Saariselka Wilderness area of Finland – a few kilometres from the visitor centre at Tankavaara. The same few kilometres from the road where we were expecting to get the bus back to Saariselka. We arrived back at the bus stop with 45 minutes to spare.

We certainly felt vulnerable – out in the open on foot. I had previously met black bears in America, but then I had been on horseback. A horse can outrun a bear on flat ground, a human can’t outrun a bear on any terrain – the bear has four legs and a low centre of gravity.

But it would be nice to see a bear properly – the bear in the wild, the humans in a relaxed/safe situation. It had taken years to see just the footprint, so what is the best way to see the actual bear?

The most obvious answer is to join a bear-watching holiday. These come in several sizes. Note that I have no connection with any of these places/companies. This is just a round-up of bear-watching opportunities advertised on the internet.

Eco-volunteering –

You’ll learn about bears and their environment from people studying them, and also contribute to conservation in that country. Greece, Romania, Bulgaria and Finland are good destinations, and Responsible Travel a good company to use.  There is a lot of information about watching bears on their website. 

Romania – volunteering at a bear sanctuary (see here for an account of visiting a bear sanctuary in Romania)

Greece – Bear conservation tour

Bear-watching trips –

A specialist trip, (or part of a more general nature trip) usually of a few days, designed to put you (with your camera if desired) in a hide for one or more nights in the expectation of seeing a bear at dawn or dusk. Usually, you are taken by vehicle to within a short distance of the hide, then on foot for the last fifteen minutes or so. For overnight stays, the hide will have bunk beds, basic toilet facilities, and perhaps a means of heating food (but not proper cooking facilities). In the morning, or at a pre-arranged time, you are collected, walk back to the vehicle, and driven to your accommodation, or the nearest town, etc. While nothing is guaranteed, a few nights in a hide is probably the best opportunity to see a bear, or two or three, plus some other passing wildlife.

Downloadable leaflet – How to behave in bear country

Finland

Martinselkonen Nature Reserve, located in Eastern Finland, is one of the best places in Europe to photograph brown bears. This tranquil wilderness location is highly recommended – on occasion up to 20 bears and eight cubs have been seen in a single night! And there is plenty of other wildlife to be seen. The location is popular with holiday companies and is included in many of the following tours.

Bear Centre – 29 hides for watching and photography – April – September

Brown bears near Kuusamo – May – October – further north than the centres listed above.

Bears and other mammals – suggestions from Visit Finland

Finland guided tours

Bears, wolves and Wolverines – April – August, self-drive trip – On this unique wildlife adventure in the boreal forest of Finland you self-drive between lodges, allowing you to explore the wildlife of the taiga at your own pace. We have selected three lodges with a network of outstanding hides from which to watch and photograph such iconic inhabitants of the far north as brown bear, wolf, wolverine and white-tailed eagle. Throughout spring and summer these overnight hides offer mammal-watching which is unrivalled in northern Europe.

Wildlife Worldwide holidays will also organise a bespoke tour, and many other companies provide something similar, perhaps especially for photographers.  

Just brown bears – summer –  a long weekend Brown Bear-watching holiday amongst the fine taiga forests that straddle Finland’s border with Russia.

Brown bear explorer June & July – Long evenings and early dawns allow incomparable opportunities to watch and photograph the wildlife of the forest on this 8-day tour in Finland. Staying at purpose built hides, night vigils with a naturalist guide reward you with close-ups of brown bears, wolverines and occasionally wolves.

Brown bears in Finland – May-August – An ideal short-haul break to a wonderful location for sighting brown bears in the Finnish wilderness.

Brown bear and elk adventure – May – September

Bear photography – June – Join wildlife photographer Tom Mason on a midsummer trip to photograph brown bears and wolverines, with four nights in specialist hides in the taiga forest of Finland.

Sweden

Bear watching in Sweden – A 4-day holiday to an idyllic, rolling land of forests and lakes where we will look for Brown Bears from a luxurious purpose-built hide, and enjoy the natural history, beauty and extraordinary tranquillity of a magical place just five hours away

South-eastern Europe

BulgariaBears and wolves

RomaniaBear-watching and Transylvanian castles – May – September

SloveniaHiking & bear-watching. Two perfect days to dive into the area of Kočevsko forest. Spend time in nature in search of wildlife and enjoy local delicacies. May – October

Slovenia –

Greece

Brown bear tracking in the northern Pindos – May – October – Track wild bears in a pristine mountainous corner of Greece: Northern Pindos. Back to nature with the friendly guides of wildlife charity CALLISTO to hear about bear research methods, walk in the wilderness, and witness traces of wild bears. Note – this is basically the same as the bear conservation tour listed under eco-volunteering, but with a different company.

Spain

Watching bears in northern Spain

A year in the life of a bear

March-April: bears emerge from hibernation, including cubs taking their first look at the outside world. All they want to do in spring is eat, to rebuild the reserves lost through the long winter sleep.

May to July: mating season, when males persistently follow females everywhere.

August-October: it is eating season again, as bears fatten up in preparation for hibernation.

More information about bears on the Euronatur website

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