17th – 20th February 2013
A winter trip to Bulgaria had long been a dream to see arguably the most beautiful goose in the world – Red Breasted. Margaret and Mark Breaks were recruited and arrangements made through Neophron Tours with Dimiter Georgiev as our guide.
After a trouble free drive down from Lancashire we flew into Varna from Luton arriving in mid-afternoon. Dimiter met us at the airport and we were soon on our way. A road side Great Grey Shrike led to an impromptu stop as we travelled to the coast. Cape Kaliakra was next and gave us a great introduction to winter birding on the Black Sea. The area was alive with birds and the highlights included 11 Black Throated Divers, 100 Black Necked grebes, 2 Caspian Gulls and several Shags of the Mediterranean race.
We then travelled a short distance to a ravine hoping to see owls. As dusk approached we considered heading for the hotel after a long day of travelling. As we walked towards the minibus Mark heard a deep hoot and to our delight a male Eagle Owl flew onto the top of the ravine and started calling. His white throat patch was visible each time his deep calls resonated through the still air. He was unconcerned by our presence and continued to call until his mate appeared close by. She soon went off to hunt but the male bird continued to call until we left. A lovely way to end our first day.
We awoke early full of anticipation. We headed out after breakfast and were soon encountering White Fronted Geese heading inland after roosting on the Black Sea. Our first stop was at Lake Durankulak where large flocks of geese could be seen in flight.
A look round the nearby camp site produced a pair of Syrian Woodpecker calling, drumming and showing alongside a Great Spotted Woodpecker.
As the geese remained unsettled we headed back south to the village of Ezerets and soon located a large gathering of 5000 White Fronted Geese. As we approached closer we were delighted to see a group of 800 Red Breasted Geese amongst the flock. We spent the next couple of hours studying the geese and enjoying the sight and sound as they fed actively on winter wheat. Keeping a close eye on them was a sub adult White Tailed Eagle which occasionally took to the air causing a ripple of anxiety through the flock.
Red-breasted & White-fronted Goose
Also frequenting the fields were groups of Calandra Larks, Skylarks and Corn Buntings. Corn Buntings became a frequent companion on the trip and were present in all the habitats we visited.
On our way to lunch we stopped in the centre of Ezerets. Cold winters in Eastern Europe bring mice and voles into villages in search of grain. These attract surprising numbers of Long Eared Owls which can be found roosting in any available conifers. It is always a delight to encounter this species but to see them roosting whilst villagers pass underneath is quite incongruous to British birders. A couple of the owls sat out in full view staring down at us with their dramatic orange eyes. Also present were Syrian Woodpeckers and a few Bramblings.
After lunch we headed back to Durankulak Lake and found a flock which included family groups of Bewick’s, Whooper and Mute Swans. We then headed down to the lake and found a Red Fox in his beautiful grey and red winter coat.
A cacophony of calls indicated that a large group of geese were heading our way and 4000 White Fronted Geese came in to bathe along with 20 Red Breasted Geese. Careful searching did not reveal any other geese species but did allow us to read some neck collars on the White fronts.
The geese left to feed and we started to scan the lake and surrounding fields as afternoon became evening. On the water Red Crested Pochards and Pygmy Cormorants kept us entertained and a Penduline Tit showed all too briefly.
There were many raptor highlights including wonderful views of a Long Legged Buzzard. We were also entertained by an adult White tailed Eagle, 3 Hen Harriers, Short Eared Owl and Merlin. These were seen along with Buzzard, Sparrowhawk, Kestrel and the constantly patrolling Marsh Harriers.
The highlight though was still to come. In the distance a large flock of geese got up and headed to the lake to roost. To our delight the flock was almost entirely made up of 3900 Red Breasted Geese – 7% of the known world population!
There was one final surprise when a Barn Owl (a white breasted migrant form further north) flew across the road as we drove back to our hotel.
A very early breakfast was no problem for our excellent host and ham and eggs fortified us for the day ahead. We were very excited to be heading for more time with the geese around Durankulak Lake. It was a beautiful still morning and we could hear calls rising and falling until they reached a crescendo when wave after wave of geese headed off to feed. First came the White fronts in V formation and then the Red Breasted in wavering lines.
They headed back to the area they had been feeding in the day before and soon settled down. We thought we knew which field they were in and began a long walk to find them. After a mile (these are big fields!) we found the geese and began to edge closer. To our delight a Golden Jackal then appeared and began to stalk the geese, something Dimiter had never seen before. The Jackal was one of a pair and they worked together to split the flock and then tried stalking.
The Jackals helped push the geese closer to us and when they realised there was no easy meal they headed off leaving us to enjoy the geese in peace. We then had a fantastic couple of hours with the flock which comprised 5000 White Fronted Geese and 3900 Red Breasted Geese.
Red-breasted & White-fronted Goose
The flocks fed voraciously and so searching through them was tricky. However, the movement of birds from one end of the flock to the other did provide an opportunity to view more of the birds. As a small group of White fronts flew towards us one appeared smaller and as it landed it showed the yellow eye rings of a Lesser White fronted Goose!
Lesser White-fronted & White-fronted Goose
This juvenile bird played hide and seek in the flock but eventually all of us got to see this very rare bird. To our amazement Mark had photographed this tiny group in flight and caught the Lesser White Front! To see this special bird alongside the thousands of Red breasted and Russian White Fronted Geese provided one of the great European birding spectacles.
After a hearty lunch we headed out to explore the Shabla area but could not resist a return to the Long Eared Owls and found at least 25 present.
On the way to Shabla Lighthouse we found a herd of swans which included Bewick’s and Whoopers but also a first winter Common Crane. This bird was the only one that had wintered in the area and it was nice to see that it had survived the cold weather.
At the lighthouse we found Black Throated Diver, Black Necked Grebe and Shag along with Little and Yellow Legged Gulls. The lakes at Shabla were quiet due to the mild weather but the surrounding scrub produced 4 Hawfinch. Another excellent day drew to a close with a lovely male Hen Harrier as we returned to our hotel.
Our evening meal was excellent and my salad was so fresh it contained a wriggling caterpillar - which caused great hilarity all round!
We were sad to say goodbye to our excellent host but were excited that our final morning was going to take us to some new areas. A look round the nearby village of Balgarevo produced the hoped for Little Owl – the fifth owl species of the trip.
We then headed to the Baltata Riverine Forest in search of woodpeckers. It was a beautiful still morning and conditions seemed perfect as we parked up. Stepping out of the car a pair of birds flew into the tree above us – a pair of Middle Spotted Woodpeckers. They showed really well and as we watched them we could hear Green & Grey Headed Woodpeckers calling and Greater & Lesser Spotted Woodpeckers drumming – what a fabulous place.
Grey Headed Woodpecker
Suddenly the male Grey Headed Woodpecker appeared overhead and began drumming. A quick change of position and we had him in full view, a most elegant bird with his red, grey and green contrasts highlighted by the morning sun. Next came a couple of Short Toed Treecreepers singing and calling on the same tree before Margaret spotted a pair of Lesser Spotted Woodpeckers high in the canopy.
Middle Spotted Woodpecker
We did not know which way to look when three more Middle Spotted Woodpeckers appeared chasing and calling to each other. This is a really beautiful species and the opportunity to have prolonged views was a true delight.
We returned to the van delighted and headed to our final destination, Yatata Marsh near Varna, full of anticipation. We pulled up at an elevated view point and looked down onto pools teeming with birds. First to catch our eye was a pair of Dalmatian Pelicans and an immature White Pelican, a real bonus. Whilst Dalmatians winter in southern Bulgaria we were not expecting to find either species here and Dimiter attributed this to the mild weather.
The pools must have been teeming with fish as 200 Pygmy Cormorants joined the pelicans and providing our best views of the trip. Great Cormorants, Grey Herons and Great White Egrets also joined the melee with the ubiquitous Marsh Harriers waiting to snatch an easy meal.
There was also a good variety of wildfowl present which included a female Ferruginous Duck. Our final check of the scrub round the lake produced several Cetti’s Warbler and a smart male Hawfinch. This site was excellent and a great way to end the trip.
On the way home we reflected on what an enjoyable trip it had been. We would highly recommend Neophron Tours and Dimiter who proved to have a great sense of humour and did everything he could to ensure the trip was a success.
All Images taken by Margaret & Mark Breaks, Copyright - © Breaks Bird Photography