Bulgaria:
Black Sea Coast and Rhodope Mountains

Day 8; Thu. 26 April. 09:00 breakfast for a 09:50 departure, Black Redstart, Willow Tit and Serin seen in trees just outside the guest house. Although Devin is 715 metres in altitude, the morning was windless and warm in addition to being clear and sunny. Balkan Chamois (Rupricaria r. balcanica) was the wildlife target for the morning, searched for during stops along an ascending route immediately behind the town. Climbing through zones of Black and then Scots Pine we eventually left the main route along a dirt track, where we stopped to wander in search of Rock Partridge. Although not found we saw a Cuckoo (brown-phase female), Yellowhammer, Raven and Woodlark. A highlight was a Crested Tit, lured in for unbeatable ultra-close viewing with a recording. Owing to a deteriorating track we elected to walk rather than drive to an elevated radio mast. Passing through pines and by subalpine fields we enjoyed excellent views of Common Crossbill, Treecreeper, Nuthatch and Greater Spotted Woodpecker and, finally emerging at an overview of the greater landscape, a Lesser Whitethroat was heard singing and briefly seen. Incidental wildlife items during the walk included comparatively fresh tracks of a very large Wolf, also Badger scats.
On reaching the mast we achieved a precipitous view over crags, scree slopes and lightly tree-clad hillsides. Vlado soon signalled that he had seen a Chamois below the crags, which vanished before we reached the position. After awhile he spotted a second animal, this one immediately below at the base of a scree slope. Although aware of our presence it was not alarmed and even settled to browse foliage, presenting excellent and well-earned viewing.
Back at the vehicle we had lunch (14:00), then headed back down to Devin, pausing along the descent for a last check of the mountainside. Sharp-eyed Pavel soon spotted a Chamois laid up in the shade of an overhanging rock, thereby enabling Margaret - who had missed the previous animal - to achieve good views through the scope.
Trigrad Gorge was next on the agenda, an immensely beautiful and dramatic location where Wallcreeper was our target. For almost two hours we scrutinised the sheer rock faces through binoculars, but our bird was neither heard nor seen. The location was nevertheless worthwhile for the array of interesting flowing plants, several of which proved difficult to identify, as the range of our field guide didn't cover Bulgaria. Yellow Whitlow-grass, Blue Corydalis, a dark-red Rock-jasmine and the endemic Haberlea rhodopensis were notable.
On the way back we took a side road leading along a river where a Dipper was seen, eventually leading up to a meadow where Cowslips and Dog's-tooth Violets flowered. Hazel Hen was the hoped for target bird, but Pavel's recording failed to muster a response. Other plants noted included Mezereon, Spring Pea, Seven-leaved Bittercress, Asarabacca and Heart-leaved Leopardsbane. Back at the guest house 19:45.

Day 9; Fri. 27 April. After an 08:00 breakfast we departed the friendly hospitality of Vlado and Vesca at 09:00, the morning again sunny and windless though initially chilly in the shade. We drove directly to Trigrad Gorge for another attempt at Wallcreeper which, according to personal experience - also the honey-selling lady at the parking area - tend to be most active during mornings. DK scouted the lower gorge as Pavel surveyed the upper aspect, while Alpine Swifts chattered overhead, Black Redstarts sang from the rock faces and Bullfinches were seen in trees by the river. While DK heard and briefly saw a Wallcreeper, Pavel had already pinpointed an inhabited nest. Although at the far side of the gorge, we managed to adjust our position such that, through the scopes, the adult pair could be seen very well as they came and went with food for their young, occasionally pausing at the nest-site entrance. We were finally induced to take our leave (11:00).
Continuing on our way we again passed through high-level forests where remnant snow still appeared, a photographic stop being inspired on coming upon a meadow of Blue Crocuses which, in places, were so dense that their colour manifested as a haze.
En route to Plovdiv we made stops in Rock Thrush country, taking lunch at a roadside restaurant in suitable habit where Golden Eagles were also reported to occur. Several Buzzards and a Hobby were the main birds spotted. At Plovdiv we joined the motorway for the final leg of the journey to Sofia, where traffic was building significantly. Hotel Hyundai (reached at 18:30), our final accommodation, was, however, high above the chaos of the city, located at the upper forest zone of Vitosha mountain. Whereas the temperature at city level was quite hot, on the mountain it was somewhat chilly.

Day 10; Sat. 28 April The regular 08:00 breakfast preceded an 08:45 trip up to the ski station, Stephen having seen a Marsh Tit by the hotel and, together with Alan, spotted a pair of close-range Common Crossbills. The morning was chilly - just a couple of degrees above freezing - the sky patchily clouded permitting occasional bursts of warming sunlight to break through. On the way up we stopped to attempt luring in a Nutcracker using a recording (i.e. we used the recording - not the Nutcracker). Within moments a Nutcracker alighted in a nearby spruce and proceeded to utter its harsh grating call. From the end of the road we then walked along a path following the contour, seeing several more Nutcrackers, including two individuals foraging on the ground nearby. Passing through groves of Norway Spruce the calls of Goldcrests and Firecrests were heard, both showing very well once lured out by a recording. Not too far ahead we entered a forest opening where the final new bird of the tour, a male Ring Ouzel, was induced to perch close by atop a spruce. Its pale-fringed body feathers were typical of the Central European race alpestris. With time in hand we headed back to the hotel for a final coffee and to collect baggage, then headed into Sofia to look for Red Squirrels in a well-wooded park. We didn't have to wander far before one was spotted stripping shredded bark from a dead tree, clearly for use as bedding material in its drey. It was an excellent prolonged view, the animal being a dark chocolate brown, typical of Red Squirrels in this eastern region of Europe.
On reaching the airport (13:20), initially at the wrong terminal, a few spots of rain began to fall. After checking in for our flight there was time to review the checklist one last time before saying farewell to Pavel and heading for departures. Our scheduled 15:15 flight to Vienna took off on time, the connecting flight to London Heathrow touching down punctually at 18:40 thus concluding the tour.

Notes/Comments: Eventful from start to finish would be a fair appraisal of our first early spring venture to Bulgaria. There were a great many highlights, such as the opening experience of wetland birdlife - featuring an array of birds too numerous to mention. Suffice to say that we shall not forget the flights of Pygmy Cormorants and Glossy Ibises or the Pratincoles gracefully parading about the sky overhead. And then there was the final morning at Vitosha where excellent views of Nutcracker, Firecrest and Ring Ouzel was a memorable finale. Each day presented something new and different, and each of us will be aware of personal highlights. Great Snipe, Semi-collared Flycatcher, Red-throated Pipit and Citrine Wagtail were notable rarities, but I should doubt if any of us rated those nearly so highly as the infinitely less uncommon Eagle Owl in silhouette against the evening sky. Although not alluded to in the report on a day to day basis, one heard Nightingales at virtually every stop - and at least a hundred Corn Buntings to each Nightingale.
It was a huge disappointment (and source of embarrassment for DK) that the Brown Bear watch turned out to be such a none event. An unseasonably mild winter was the apparent reason for their disinterest in the bait site. Bears aside, we actually didn't do at all badly for mammals. The Jackal on Day 6 was an exceptional sighting, the Chamois that we stalked and viewed with Vlado was greatly rewarding, and even the close sightings of European Sousliks were immensely entertaining. Even mammals that weren't seen inspired significant interest, their presence betrayed by fresh track and scats - as with the large male Wolf on Day 8.
Still being early season there was not a huge number of wild flowers or butterflies, but among those discovered there were several notable species - including the stunning Narrow-leaved Peony.
Unfortunately there were species beyond DK's ability to identify on referring to existing literature, and the checklist ultimately omits many species not satisfactorily identified. The book that provides all the answers has, however, already been ordered!
The final bird tally was an outstanding 223 (of which three were wagtail subspecies).
Eleven mammals were recorded, including those heard but not seen.
Wildlife aside, I am quite sure that locational content, visits to some very special environments, good food and good company all contributed towards an overall memorable event. And what about the weather? ... rain free throughout! Ultimately the experience could not have been so full and rewarding without the great expertise and tireless efforts of our guide Pavel Simeonov, whose unerring sharp-eyed vigilance - not to mention his 'take-no-prisoners-I'm-coming-through' brand of driving - ensured that time was not wasted and we didn't miss a thing.
Feedback of any kind is always appreciated.

Tour Wildlife Checklist on demand


DAVID KENT
GREAT GLEN WILDLIFE

ADDRESS: SHERREN, HARRAY, ORKNEY KW17 2JU, SCOTLAND UK
TEL 01856 761604
e-mail davidkent@onetel.com

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