A fortnight spring birding tour, exploring some of the most beautiful, bird-rich landscapes in Europe – the Black Sea coast, the Rhodopes, the Central Balkan and the Vitosha Mountains.
The tour starts with the highest mountain on the Balkan peninsula – Rila, where we will be looking for Eurasian Pygmy Owl, Hazel Grouse, Spotted Nutcracker and other conifer forests birds, like the Ring Ouzel (ssp. alpestris), Willow Tit, Crested Tit, Common Firecrest, plus Water Pipit in the mountain grasslands and streams.
Our next destination is Rhodope Mountains – a lovely area close to the border with Greece. Their western part with rounded, pine-clad hills is occasionally cut by streams and rivers running through deep gorges. One of them is the magnificent Trigrad Gorge – the realm of the Wallcreeper. Its vertical limestone cliffs resound with the noise of numerous Alpine Swifts and Eurasian Crag Martins and echo with the shrill calls of the Peregrine Falcon. Every now and then White-throated Dippers, Grey Wagtails and White Wagtails dart over the translucent river.
In the eastern part of the mountain the landscape is radically different – jagged peaks, towering cliffs and sparsely vegetated, boulder-strewn slopes. The most spectacular bird residents there are the Eurasian Griffon Vultures, inhabiting the crater of an ancient volcano. Eurasian Black Vultures, Egyptian Vultures, Black Kites, White-tailed Eagles are also frequent visitors of the feeding tables. We will see many Black Storks nesting on the cliffs. Chukars often stand sentinel on rocky hillsides. The shrill whistles of Western Rock Nuthatches and the songs of the Ortolan Buntings can be heard everywhere around. Other typically Balkan birds, like the Pallid Swift, Red-rumped Swallow, Blue Rock Trush, Eastern Black-eared Wheatear, Sardinian Warbler, Eastern Subalpine Warbler, Eastern Bonelli’s Warbler, Sombre Tit, Cirl Bunting, Rock Bunting, are common there too.
While we drive to the southern Black Sea coast we will stop in the Sakar Hills and Strandzha Mountain, where we will be looking for the Eastern Imperial Eagle, Montagu’s Harrier, Levant Sparrowhawk, Masked Shrike, Woodchat Shrike, Olive-tree Warbler and Eastern Orphean Warbler. The Sakar is an area of rounded hills and open valleys, where most of the lowland is step-like grassland with scattered trees, bushes and agricultural plots. It is Bulgaria’s Eastern Imperial Eagles stronghold. The Strandzha, on the other hand, is an endless chain of mild crests and folding wood-covered tops that provide shelter to the Booted Eagle, Masked Shrike, Olive-tree Warbler, Semi-collared Flycatcher, etc. European Rollers, European Bee-eaters, Eurasian Hoopoes and Black-headed Buntings are everywhere along the roads.
On the Black Sea coast we will first explore the lakes around the city of Bourgas: it is a complex of extensive wetlands that form one of Europe’s richest bird areas. The greatest lure of the Bourgas wetlands are the huge flocks of resident Great White Pelicans and Dalmatian Pelicans. At the shallow saline lagoons of Atanasovsko Lake and Pomorie Lake traditional saltpans are still functioning. They are of major importance for a big number of birds, including the Greater Flamingo, Black-winged Stilt, Curlew Sandpipers, Broad-billed Sandpiper, Temminck’s Stint, Marsh Sandpiper, Kentish Plover, Slender-billed Gull, Little Gull, Mediterranean Gull, Gull-billed Tern, Sandwich Tern and Little Tern.
Traveling north along the coast we will pass the oak forests in the Balkan Mountain’s easternmost part and the unique Kamchia riverine forest. En route we can expect to find Black Stork, Lesser Spotted Eagle, Grey-headed Woodpecker, Middle Spotted Woodpecker, Eurasian Wryneck, Barred Warbler, Semi-collared Flycatcher, Sombre Tit, etc.
Already at the northern coast, we will dedicate a day to the steppes and cliffs of Cape Kaliakra, which, besides being a spectacular sight, is a place hosting the Rose-colored Starling, the Pied Wheatear and several species of larks, including the Calandra Lark, Greater Short-toed Lark, Eurasian Skylark, Crested Lark. The Eurasian Stone Curlew, Lesser Grey Shrike, Tawny Pipit and Isabelline Wheatear also find refuge in the steppe vegetation, while the coastal cliffs are animated by European Shag (ssp. desmarestii), Eurasian Eagle Owl and Long-legged Buzzard. In spring, Yelkouan Shearwaters often fish in the sea close to the cape, attacked by Arctic Skuas.
Another major birding area on the northern coast is that of the Shabla and Durankulak wetlands close to the border with Romania. Over 80 bird species breed in the region of the two lakes, the most interesting of them being the Western Marsh Harrier, Collared Pratincole, Ferruginous Duck, Red-footed Falcon, Lesser Grey Shrike, Savi’s Warbler, Marsh Warbler, Cetti’s Warbler, Bearded Reedling, Common Reed Bunting (ssp. reiseri), etc. The two lakes are one of the few places in Europe where the Paddyfield Warbler, a typical Asian species, can be easily seen breeding. There we can expect all species of European herons, Little Egret, Pygmy Cormorant, other migrating & summering species of waders, gulls and terns.
The next part of the tour is dedicated to the Central Balkan Range. The mountain’s core, the Central Balkan National Park, protects the largest European massif of beach forest, which is over 250 years old. Species of different climatic zones coexist there, including most of the woodpecker and owl species breeding in Bulgaria. We will arrive in the area in the afternoon, visit some old beech forests for Red-breasted Flycatcher, White-backed Woodpecker (ssp. lilfordi), Black Woodpecker, and take a night walk (optional) for Tawny Owl.
Finally we will explore the Dragoman marshes and their very diverse surroundings, which hosts species like the Great Bittern, Short-toed Eagle, Corncrake, Little Crake, Rufous-tailed Rock Thrush, Lesser Grey Shrike.
If we have more time before the flights we can visit the conifer and alpine zones of the Vitosha Nature Park for high mountain birds like Spotted Nutcracker, Common Crossbill, Ring Ouzel (ssp. alpestris), Common Firecrest and Goldcrest, Willow Tit, Water Pipit, Alpine Accentor, Shore Lark (ssp. balcanica), etc.
During the trip we will see a lot of White Stork nests. The European Roller, European Bee-eater, Eurasian Hoopoe, Syrian Woodpecker, Olivaceous Warbler, the Black-headed subspecies of the Western Yellow Wagtail (ssp. feldegg), Red-backed Shrike, Spanish Sparrow, Black-headed Bunting, Ortolan Bunting, etc. are almost everywhere in the lowlands.