Wednesday, 1 May 2013

Balkan bonanza

The enigmatic Wallcreeper - a star bird on any trip, and possible at close range in Bulgaria.
Question: what’s the best birding destination in Europe? The answer partly depends on your perspective – the species you want to see, the kind of terrain you enjoy, climate considerations and so on. But in terms of diversity (for which read trip total) and also sheer numbers, right up there among the best is Bulgaria.

Scrub and woodland along the Black Sea coast can be dripping with migrant passerines in spring.
Male Red-backed Shrike, a species which occurs here in impressive numbers.
In late April I had the chance to get another taste of Balkan birding myself, and was not disappointed. Although our whistle-stop Bulgarian trip lasted just four nights, travelling from Sofia cross-country to the Black Sea and back via the Rhodope Mountains, it was more than enough to illustrate the superb birding on offer.

Pygmy and Great Cormorants near Burgas on the Black Sea. The former species is easy to see here.
Scenic Lake Mandra produced White-tailed Eagle and Ferruginous Duck among many other species.
Travelling with Lubomir Profirov, Bulgarian Rarities Committee member and Balkan field guide co-author, we covered some 1,500 km by road, in the process logging no fewer than 159 species – a high total in view of the amount of time in transit. The Black Sea coast provided an excellent spread of waterbirds and migrants, from Pygmy Cormorant, Great White Pelican and Marsh Sandpiper to European Roller, Red-throated Pipit and Lesser Grey Shrike, while in the steppe, hills and mountains we tracked down a healthy range of specialities, among them Calandra Lark, Crag Martin, Isabelline Wheatear, Rock Bunting and that utter gem of a bird, Wallcreeper. Raptors were a feature everywhere, from Red-footed Falcon and Long-legged Buzzard to Lesser Spotted and Eastern Imperial Eagles; we logged no fewer than 16 species.

Raptors were constantly in evidence in Bulgaria, including Lesser Spotted Eagle which was on the move in numbers.
This short trip was over too quickly, but the good news is I’ll be heading back again next year, co-leading a more comprehensive tour alongside Lubo. On a more leisurely itinerary, our aim will be to round up the great majority of available Balkan specialities, and also hit migration on the Black Sea flyway at the peak time. I’ll post more details of the itinerary soon, but if you want to register your interest early then please contact Gina Nichol at Sunrise Birding. In the meantime, this selection of images will give a flavour of Bulgaria’s top-notch birding.

Male Spanish Sparrow: this species can be found in numbers in spring and summer.
Majestic White Storks build nests in commanding positions on top of village pylons, and often have an entourage of Spanish and House Sparrows occupying the 'basement'.

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