Wednesday 11 October 2023

Bulgaria 2023 - 17th to 30th September (Part 2)

 Day 9:

   Day 9 was probably the windiest day of the trip, building on the strong northeasterlies which had been battering KB for a few days. The entire trip can almost be split into two halves - the first half being of migrant diversity and abundance, the second digging for scarcities and a transition towards a more wintery/autumnal feel. The 25th was the first day where migrant turnover was more limited, with the exception of 16 Red-breasted Flycatcher and more Spanish Sparrow passage. To make the most of my time there, and given I couldn't travel too far from home, I decided to wander the few km down to Yailata, an archaeological reserve situated right on the coast with some decent looking habitat (and interesting geology/history.) I failed to crunch a flock of large birds flying low over the water a few miles out, likely pelicans, but was kept company by Red-veined Darter dragonflies and Clouded Yellow butterflies, with a few Red-breasted Flycatcher dropping in later on. 

On the walk down I'd had a brief look at a chat sp, which I saw for half a second before it dropped down deep into cover not to reemerge. First glimpse pointed towards Whinchat, but I put a reminder to look harder later on. I'm glad I did, as it quickly revealed itself as a stonechat sp, and an extremely tricky one at that. It took a while but eventually I gathered enough to suggest it was likely to be a Siberian Stonechat, though I did need to check notes later before sharing news. The ID was eventually made by the hint of a stripe above the eye, its extremely washed colour, as well as a largely pale, unstreaked rump. The record shots were eventually enough to reveal white on the outer tail feathers, suggesting the bird to be a 1st winter 'Caspian' Stonechat, a bird surely brought in from the Caspian Sea by the persisting northeasterlies we'd somewhat been cursing until this point. It was my first rarity found since arriving, and was an especially early record for the area - what felt like just reward for a lot of hours in the field. 

Hoopoe and the Black Sea

Med Gull

Not sure how this is still plugging away


1st winter Caspian Stonechat

Day 10:

   The period shortly after first light, 0710-0730, was once again the most fruitful - a single immature Spoonbill + 3 Great White Egret (site firsts) went through, as did two Osprey. The Calandra Lark flock was now at least 67 birds, with another smaller group present further out on the Steppe. Red-throated Pipits were moving in higher numbers, all while warblers and grounded migrants remained but at steadily reducing numbers. Pete returned mid morning, at which point we went seeking for the Caspian Stonechat again. To no avail, but an interesting shrike sp (very pale, sounded different too) kept us searching for a while longer than anticipated. A flyby Black-throated Diver, Sedge Warblers in the grass (trip tick for me,) a Tawny Pipit and another skulky River Warbler briefly on one of the plots in the evening was the best of the rest for Kamen Bryag that day.  

The afternoon was spent visiting Shabla Tuzla again, in the hope the strong winds had blown bits in. It had - Avocets (4) and Whiskered Tern were new, wader and duck numbers were much higher and most notably, Little Gull (up to 51) and Greater Flamingo (61) numbers had jumped enormously. We briefly dropped in to a seawatching point on the way back to KB, where it was made all the more obvious how many birds were being pushed towards the coastline - including 00s of small gulls, terns and a handful of Yelk Shear and Arctic Skuas. A few minutes of Crested Lark action was followed by a return home to freshen up and head back out for a proper dinner for the first time in a few days, deserved and needed!

1cy Spoonbill

Tawny Pipit

Redstart and Red-backed Shrike

Crested Lark

Day 11:

   It was a much quieter morning on the 27th - numbers continued to drop, so there were 3 clear highlights. Barred Warbler (at last) and Mistle Thrush were on Peter's plot, the latter being surprisingly scarce - a single Black Redstart then made it onto another plot, before disappearing into someones garden. Common Redstarts were interestingly starting to become more abundant along the tracks, whilst Red-breasted Flycatcher numbers remained steady. 

In the afternoon we drove to Durankulak, a lake and nature reserve area north of Kamen Bryag, for some birding change of scenery and to stay with Pavel, the owner of Branta Birding Lodge, a B&B for birders. There was more evidence here that the wind had pushed birds in, with 3000 Med Gulls just in one field. A few additions whilst stomping around a campsite with Pavel, then looking across the marsh, included lifer Pygmy Cormorant (30,) Ruddy Shelduck and a smattering of Redstart and RBF. The night was then spent at the Birding Lodge for dinner and a bit of actual work, helping Pavel prepare a few bits and bobs ahead of hosting the 'Eastern Birdfair' the year after. Be interesting to see how it goes, fingers crossed I may be able to go over to help/volunteer.

Red-throated Pipit


Caspian Gull

Pygmy Cormorants

Day 12:

   A slightly odd day was the 28th - initially, we were meant to be joining Durankulak's ringing camp for a morning which ended up not happening. Instead, after more outrageously good watermelon and a pair of White-tailed Eagles trying to pinch an Osprey's breakfast, we got to do some ringing in Pavel's garden. Spanish Sparrows dominated, with a mixture of beefy males, chirpy immatures and quiet females all ringed over a few hours, in addition to a dapper male Redstart, a Garden Warbler, a Lesser Whitethroat and a few Willow Warblers. A few hours out in the field around Durankulak then produced a mixed warbler flock of predominantly Willow Warblers, as well as plenty of Stonechats etc, before we headed back to KB after lunch. [Huge thanks to Pavel and Tatiana for the food, hospitality, guiding etc.]

The only birds of real note when we stopped at Shabla Tuzla on the way back were 3 Caspian Terns, my first in Europe somehow. Little was sheltering back home when on evening surveys, so more time was spent watching Syrian Woodpeckers, RBFs etc etc. A Nightjar was the last bird of the day, seen on the way back from dinner. 


Pete + Redstart 

Spanish Sparrow

Wood Sandpiper

Day 13:

   Two days left! We were ever so slightly more optimistic now the winds had turned slightly to the north. We ventured to Kaliakra again for dawn, scoring 177 Alpine Swift, a Black-throated Diver on the sea, 4 migrant Woodlark, 13 Redstart and best of all: 14 Tree and 15 Red-throated Pipit, 1550 Spanish Sparrow heading out over the sea, and a kettle of raptors worth 20+ birds, which included 3 Black Kite and 16+ Sparrowhawks. A Pallid Swift on the way back was new for me too, with 3 more seen in the same town the next day.

Looking back, the penultimate day was actually really quite good. On top of the morning's birding at Kaliakra, the rest of the daylight was spent stomping round Kamen Bryag properly one last time. Migrant turnover was by now pretty limited, so we left some time to give the interesting shrike another bash, which helpfully resulted in the first Goldcrests and then Pete refinding the hemprichii Siberian Stonechat out on the steppe south of Kamen Bryag. Pavel joined us for about half an hour, as we got much better views of the bird with the sun behind us, as it flicked through the long grasses actively feeding next to a Whinchat. 

In the evening, driving for our last dinner at 'Seahorse' aka ('Mopcko Koncha,') we saw the final Nightjar of the trip, a very smart male, as well as a lifer, that being a Long-eared Owl which emerged from the trees in front. The full moon and clear night brought a bit more magic, as the sound of howling Golden Jackals filled Kamen Bryag for a second night, an unexpected, exciting and chilling wildlife experience. 

Alpine Swift

Spanish Sparrows


Spanish Sparrows

Alpine Swift

Alpine Swifts


Clouded Yellow

1st winter Caspian Stonechat - white outer tail on show

Unstreaked pale rump

Day 14:

   Myself and Pete by the last morning were pretty tired, and overall quite ready to go home. We devised a final plan for the day, to go to Kaliakra one more time at 08:30, after I finished my final surveys. It was quite quiet out, and bar a Greenfinch - a site tick for me - few birds were in the bushes. As I reached one of my last plots, the 177th/180th count of bird/butterfly/dragonfly for the 2 weeks, I heard a 'chuk' call I knew I hadn't heard whilst out in Bulgaria. The main 4 species which had been 'tacking,' 'ticking' or similar had been Red-breasted Flycatcher, Blackcap, Lesser Whitethroat and Redstart, with the bird I was hearing being thicker and 'wetter,' making me instantly assume Dusky Warbler. I've been on the hunt for a UK Dusky Warbler for a while now, so hearing this bird I knew exactly what it was pretty much straight away. My recorder went on and as expected, a 2nd for Bulgaria was flitting in the dog roses just around the next corner, on the same 'plot 2b' the Caspian Stonechat had first been found on. The bird promptly disappeared by the time Pete arrived (within 2 minutes of me finding it,) but after some coordination, we tracked it down again an hour later, where a plan came together and Pete nailed the shots, as it briefly emerged in the undergrowth again. It'll be a shock to many including me, but I finally found a rare bird...

Later than anticipated, we eventually went to Kaliakra optimistic that more rare birds may be present. It turned into some morning, and with 4 Pintail through, a random immature Great White Pelican and a flyover Golden Plover, I brought up 140 species for the trip for me, with Pete stranded at 179. We also noticed an increase in a few 'winter' autumn migrants, with Robins, Song thrushes, Tree Sparrows, Linnets and Blackbirds all replacing chats, warblers and the like. Red-throated Pipit numbers were seemingly still steadily increasing. A single Purple Heron was one of the last birds seen before leaving the Cape, as we slowly dragged ourselves away. A few raptors were moving when we reached Kamen Bryag, including 2 Short-toed Eagle low over the steppe. A final attempt to see the Dusky Warbler again failed, but we left happy. 

Dusky Warbler - 2nd for Bulgaria

Calandra Larks


Golden Plover

Great White Pelican

Short-toed Eagle

   The trip may have been for 'research,' but the birding whilst doing that and in general was exceptional. It was a bit of an eye opener, in both good and bad ways. The contrast between the UK and Bulgaria in terms of species abundance felt enormous - the number of everything, from Corn Buntings and larks to Red-breasted Flycatchers and Willow Warblers, was just so much higher than I've ever experienced in Europe. Totals of at least 519 Bee-Eater, 173 Red-backed Shrike, 141 Willow Warbler, 153 Lesser Whitethroat, 238 Red-breasted Flycatcher, and 0s/00s/000s of other species is not something I'm really used to at home, and so those are what made the trip so good for me. Really, the bird of the trip for me has to be the Red-breasted Flycatchers. They were seen on every day, and were often the only thing keeping me company when I was that bit more bored in the mid-day heat. Something about them, like with most chats and flycatchers - full of energy, character, with some very interesting vocalisations too. 

A final enormous thanks to Peter most of all for everything with the trip, which genuinely would've been impossible without his hosting/organisation/help/driving etc. Also a thanks to Roger, Pavel and Tatiana, Dylan and our accommodation hosts in Kamen Bryag for all the company and help. Will be back, eventually, hopefully...


Dinner ft Shopska salad, Pete's favourite


Tuesday 10 October 2023

Bulgaria 2023 - 17th to 30th September (Part 1)

   Although I rarely get the time to write blogs or trip reports anymore, I thought I'd actually try and record a few of my annual highlights on here as a personal diary, just as I did when I first started blogging when I was 14. 

For my undergraduate dissertation for Geography, I decided to focus on researching 'wilding' and the potential ecological benefits of 'rewilding' style land management. In my second year, the green economy and similar regularly featured across lectures, readings and essays; as a result, by the early spring I'd planned a trip to Bulgaria to do some fieldwork on land bought by friend and ecologist Peter Alfrey. With various grants helping to cover most of the trip, it was one I prepared for early and was thus extremely excited for by the summer, especially as it was my first time going on a 'research' trip abroad.

Peter's plot after pond construction/meadow management

Peter's plot from another angle

Dawn from my window - what a view 

Pete's plot

Day 1:

   After an early start and a morning of travel, we arrived in Varna in the early afternoon Bulgarian time, racing through security etc in under 25 minutes. Waiting for the car to be ready produced my first Crested Lark in over 5 years, singing on the terminal building, whilst a Spotted Flycatcher was the first migrant we saw as we left the airport. We stopped at the all important Lidl on the way to Kamen Bryag, the home of Peter's wilding plot - we then started to notice migrant birds alongside the road, indicating the rain and winds that morning had dropped things in. Red-backed Shrikes (a lifer for me at the time, funny,) Turtle Doves, Spotted Fly and Barn and Red-rumped Swallows were some of the most abundant species seen from the car.

Ironically, the 'fall' we got on the first afternoon didn't get topped again for the two weeks which followed. The ideal winds and weather for September along the Black Sea coast we found to be westerlies with cloud and rain - we got cloud infrequently, NW once, and rain not again whilst there. Only birders would complain about a lack of rain, though admittedly I didn't massively mind the crisp, consistent 25C temperatures. Nonetheless, we made the most of that first afternoon. With bags hauled inside, we headed straight out into the field for 90 minutes of birding before dark. I always find migration falls a bit magical, especially of small passerines. Red-breasted Flycatchers (another lifer at the time) were quite obviously everywhere that evening, with totals just in the southern end of the town being at least 34 individuals, likely way more. A Corncrake was with a Hoopoe in someone's garden, whilst Spotfly and juvenile Red-backed Shrikes were occupying most bushes. With a supporting cast of Nightjar at dusk, site first Ringed Plover and plenty of other migrants scattered across the town, there wasn't much to be disappointed about for a first day. 

Red-breasted Flycatcher


Day 2:

   Sleep catchup was followed by a trip down to Cape Kaliakra for first light, Kaliakra being almost the equivalent to the Black Sea's Spurn Point. There'd been a clearout in migrants overnight, although a good mix of species was noted in the 3 or so hours we were there. In between Pete figuring out it was his birthday and me remembering I'd not brought my sound recorder, some of the highlights at sea were Yelkouan Shearwaters and Little Stints, overhead 'Steppe' and Honey Buzzard, and in the bushes Whinchat, Redstarts, Wheatears, Red-backed Shrikes, Red-breasted Flycatchers etc. A mix of warblers were also noted, though none in large numbers. A little personal highlight was probably the Hoopoe that came in-off the Black Sea, first appearing as a floating dot before crashing down nearby. In-off migration, so so good.

The afternoon was spent exploring Kamen Bryag, conducting my first odonata and lepidoptera surveys, and getting a general feel for all the 1.15 acre plots of land in the town. Black Redstart was nice, whilst a flyby Sanderling from the window was a site first. We then went for dinner and a drink for Pete's birthday at his favourite restaurant in a nearby town, scoring a Nightjar on the drive there. Pete enjoyed a glass of wine and a shopska salad, I did similar with a beer, a deserved finish to Day2.

in-off Hoopoe



Willow Warbler

Hummingbird Hawkmoth

juv Red-backed Shrike

male RBF

Mallow Skipper

Corn Bunting

Syrian Woodpecker


Day 3:

   This was my first day of full surveys, starting what became pretty much the norm for me for the next 10 days or so. From 7 till around 930am I did a 10 minute fixed point bird count at each of the 6 plots I'd set, before doing a butterfly/dragonfly count at each in the middle of the day, and for half the days evening counts too. With what I call 'summer' autumn starting to progress onwards more, the morning of the 19th was probably the best day for migrant diversity. The only seen Wryneck of the trip was seen by 'Plot 2c,' European Bee-eaters (what a bird) were on the move throughout the morning, 2 close Lesser Spotted Eagles drifted through, my first 7 Levant Sparrowhawks did the same, Golden Orioles were catcalling whilst Hoopoe were loitering on the roads. By the afternoon, more passerines emerged, and an Osprey drifted through. This was one of my favourite days looking back - birding was quietly productive. There were things to see everywhere and constantly, whether Redstarts and flycatchers or raptors and 'vismigging' wagtails. A short seawatch produced an in-off Levant Sparrowhawk, initially noticed over the water as it came in. 

In the late afternoon, Peter went to pick up Roger, a birder from Beddington, who was joining us for a week. I was briefly worried at their 4hr absence (it's half an hour drive to Kavarna, where he was being dropped off;) turned out they were just stopping every few metres on the drive back due to the number of birds to be seen. It was definitely a day of White (and Yellow) Wagtails, with 000s of the former gathering on the roads before roost. Another Nightjar after dark on the drive to dinner topped off the day, which even included some work for me.

Euro Bee-eater

Red-rumped Swallow




Lesser Spotted Eagles

Little Owl



Spotted Flycatcher

Grizzled Skipper


Eastern Bath White

Clouded Yellow

Levant Sparrowhawk in-off

Day 4:

   Peter and Roger went to Kaliakra in the am, which I opted out of. It could've been much worse for me, adding Ortolan Bunting - a calling bird that flew out of one of my plots - to my life list, as well as Purple Heron to the site list with three that moved through SE early morning. I spent some time recording Calandra Lark, which were singing over one of the plots. Otherwise it was definitely a morning of vismig. A pulse of Swallows, worth at least 1200 birds, moved through at dawn, followed by 775 Spanish Sparrows, a bird I didn't expect to be getting such large numbers of on vismig. My first Red-throated Pipits also went through, calling alongside Tree Pipits. With the early pm butterfly shift quiet, producing trip tick 3 Siskin as well as plenty of woodpecker action (Syrian, Lesser Spotted, Great Spotted and Green,) we went to Shabla Tuzla in the afternoon, a salt lake good for waders and terns about 20 minutes away from home. Here we noted Little Stints, Greater Flamingoes, 5 Sanderling and 3 Wood Sandpipers amongst other waders. 

Spanish Sparrows mig

Purple Herons

Willow wanting to be a Radde's

Cardinal Fritillary

Ringed Plover

Little Stints

Little Stint

Scarce Copper

Eastern Bath White

Day 5:

   Day 5 started in similar fashion to Day 4, just with even more vismigging Swallows, Red-rumped Swallows and Spanish Sparrows. 17 Tree and 8 Red-throated Pipit were nice, whilst Hawfinch (12) and Turtle Dove (8) numbers were also up. A Nightingale was new in, alongside 2 Ring Ouzel, found by Pete on his plot as he went through moths, a local scarcity it seemed. Both were juveniles of the alpestris subspecies, with one kindly making it onto one of my counts. 

The bird of the day was an exhausted River Warbler strangely camping on the floor of the nearby oak woodland found by Roger and Pete, a lifer for all three of us before it eventually fell asleep. We then got a bit of false hope, as raptor migration seemed to kick off late morning. As well as a mix of Honey/Long-legged Buzzard, Lesser Spotted Eagles, Levant Sparrowhawks and Ospreys, 54 Spoonbill pushed through together. Going to a raptor viewpoint for the early afternoon was a slight gamble, producing small numbers of a range of species, most notably Short-toed Eagle. A few Black Redstart were decent, as were 4 White Stork (the only ones of the trip) from my window at home when we got back. Joined by Peter's nephew Dylan who was staying a few days, we went for a dinner out locally, joined by a group of Alpine Swifts. 

Turtle Doves

Tree Pipit

River Warbler

Day 6:

   A full day of surveys, with the highest day count for Kamen Bryag (61sp) achieved too. The highlight was an early morning vismig again with Roger, where Swallow passage between 7-740am surpassed at least 5000 birds. Red-throated Pipit passage continued, whilst Whinchat, Redstart, Wheatears, flycatchers and an increase in warblers were noted. 2 Black Kite joined the ever-growing raptor list, the 11th raptor sp of the day. Arguably the highlight for the 22nd was seeing over 15 Convolvus Hawkmoths feeding at dusk - I'd never seen them before, so my first being in this style was welcome.


Day 7:

   From Day 6 to 9, I was essentially just doing survey, bird, eat, sleep, repeat. Roger and Peter left in the early afternoon to go down to Burgas for a few days of all out birding, leaving me to do my research on my own. Stocked up on enough water, food and resources to keep me going, I quietly ticked about doing my surveys, the highlights being my first Tawny Pipit, a few Tree Sparrow and Garden Warbler, and a handful of Turtle Doves in one of my plots in addition to all the 'usuals.' Calandra Larks were flocking together, warbler, Bee-eater (65) and Red-backed Shrike (19) numbers continued to increase. A brief mid afternoon seawatch was eventful, with a Hobby hunting Wheatears after coming in-off, alongside the weirdest plastic pigeon/dove I've seen, that had me perplexed for a while. Birds actually at sea were limited in diversity, mostly being Mediterranean Gulls and Sandwich Terns.

Common Blue

juv Red-backed Shrike


Turtle Dove on a plot at dusk

Day 8:

   I finally had a lie-in, succumbing to a week of early starts. A slight switch to N from the persistent NE winds meant raptors were on the move again by lunchtime, the best place to watch from being our accommodation balcony - Short-toed E (4,) Lesser Spotted E (13,) Levant S (5,) Long-legged Buzzard (1) made up the majority of the mix. 22 Red-backed Shrike was a high count, it felt they were marking every area of scrubland, chacking away at each other. Otherwise the main highlight was another afternoon fall of Red-breasted Flycatcher, perhaps also aided by the switch in winds. 33 were noted across the southern end of town by dusk, with probably upwards of 50 birds across the entire town. This supported the suspicions that the Black Sea Coast may be more of an 'afternoon' fall place, much like Spurn and the East coast can be in the UK. 


Lesser Spotted Eagle + gulls

Calandra Lark