Black Sea Coast

Day 7; Sun. 3 Oct Another still, warm and sunny start. After an 08:00 breakfast we loaded baggage into the vehicle and bade farewell to our most agreeable hotel with extremely genial host and were on our way by 09:10. Traveling north a visit was made to Nessebar, an ancient town on a rocky island connected to the mainland by a man-made causeway. It was the perfect time for a visit, the days invasion of tourists having not yet started and shopkeepers just opening up for trade. It was a most enjoyable experience to wander the narrow streets and see the old architecture, much of it of wooden construction. And there was even time to sit down at an open cafe for a leisurely T/coffee. On returning to the vehicle the visitors were arriving in force, an aged busker in traditional dress produced wailing sounds from his bag pipes, and the towering form of Pavel - binoculars directed towards the heavens -stood out above the crowd. He eagerly greeted us with the latest report on raptor passage so, without further ado, we headed off up the road for 'Sombre Tit Hill' to hopefully witness the late morning lift-off of birds from their roosts. A party of hunters had apparently arrived earlier, so we were advised not to enter the area where our Sombre Tit had been seen on Day 4. But we didn't need to leave the parking area because large gatherings of Common Buzzards and Lesser Spotted Eagles already manifested in the skies all around. Birds that had roosted locally lifted on the soar and sometimes vanishes up into the clouds, while others arriving from further north emerged gliding in lines from patches of cloud. These were by far the best views of the tour, presenting particularly good opportunity to analyse identifying features. The accompanying entourage included about 40 Short-toed Eagles, Marsh Harriers, a single Spotted Eagle and Booted Eagle. Among other birds there were several Dalmatian Pelicans and a flight of Black Storks.
In a cafe at the location we befriended a tame Roe Deer with a passion for grapes, before continuing our journey north at 12:30. Reaching the village of Banja we pulled in for lunch at a roadside cafe, arranging chairs outside so as not to miss out on passing birdlife. A short way on we took the road to Irakli, which ultimately leads to Cape Emine. Travel along the badly pitted road was slow but good for birdwatching. Surrounding scrub cover was well populated with small passerines, a Middle Spotted Woodpecker being the first to catch our attention. It flew into a Crab Apple tree, settling to present us with excellent views as it dined on the fruit. During a stroll up the road we also saw a Goshawk, Green Woodpecker, Redstart, Black Redstart, Red-breasted and Spotted Flycatchers, Sombre Tit, Lesser Whitethroat and, briefly, an Icterine Warbler.
Soon after taking the spur road for the cape a Weasel crossed the track, darting back and fourth from Bramble cover. A short way on a mammal of 'major' status crossed the track - a Lesser Mole-rat. As the animal is blind and tailless and rather rectangular in shape, the question of which is the head and which is the tail only becomes obvious when it moves (bearing this in mind it would be inadvisable to apply the kiss-of-life to an injured specimen!). Towards coastal cliffs an eye was kept open for Rock Buntings (not seen), but three more Sombre Tits - heard as well as seen - were most worthwhile. A flat-calm sea surface was perfect for sea-watching, producing several Black-necked Grebes on the water surface and 50 Grey Herons, five Great Egrets, five Red-breasted Mergansers and a Common Tern flying by. Of diverse interest we also found Marbled White, Clouded Yellow, Peacock, Painted Lady and Grayling butterflies. The grand finale to the day, and indeed the tour, however, manifested in the form of more mammals. Firstly a Harbour Porpoise was spotted then several others, an estimated ten in all. Further out three Bottlenose Dolphins appeared, and soon afterwards three Common Dolphins, the latter occasionally breaching. A single Bottlenose and three Common Dolphins, one with calf alongside, next appeared very close to shore. The viewing was exceptional, prolonged and under superb light and sea conditions.
At 18:00 we departed the cape during the warm light of the evening and headed for Varna arriving at 20:00. After checking in to our hotel we went out to a charming restaurants for an excellent last evening meal together, accompanied by liberal toasts of Rakia to just about every bird, mammal, person and event we could think of.

Day 8; Mon. 4 Oct. 06:00 reveille, departure for the airport at 06:30 (arriving 07:00). After bidding our farewells to Pavel we boarded our flight which took off more or less on time at 08:45, arrival in Sofia 09:30.
We were duly met there by local bird guide Nyckola, arranged at short notice by Pavel late last night, who took us up the mountain of Vitosha about 20 kms south of the city centre. Steadily ascending through mixed forests we finally arrived at the 6000' level, towards the top of the conifer zone (mainly spruce). Parking at a skiing centre, largely devoid of people this time of year, we took a walk along a track in search of Nutcrackers. The temperature was really quite chilly compared with the heat at city level. A briefly glimpsed Red Squirrel primed our walk, the distinctive flight silhouettes of Nutcrackers first showing as we emerged into a broad open area. Brief fly-by glimpses were soon followed by birds perched atop spruces. There were in fact a lot of Nutcrackers about. At the forest fringe a Bullfinch and flock of Crossbills flew in, disclosed by diagnostic 'chipping' calls. Several minutes of viewing these was followed by sighting of another Red Squirrel, seen exceptionally well - a distinctly dark individual compared to those we're familiar with in the UK. Back at the ski centre Coal Tits, Goldcrests, a Dunnock, two male Black Redstarts and a Black Woodpecker were seen, and a Raven heard, thereby concluding a most rewarding and unexpected mornings bird watching - an encore no less.
Back at the airport for 13:30 we checked in for our scheduled 15:05 flight which took off at 15:30, arriving at London Heathrow 16:30 thereby concluding the tour.

Notes/Comments I think we all knew it would be a good tour but it has to be said that it exceeded all expectations on the bird scene, with an outstanding tally of exactly 180 species recorded in seven days. Although we had hoped for a few sightings of nocturnal mammals, of the eleven species seen the three cetaceans on our last afternoon were quite memorable. Red-footed Falcons in their hundreds on power lines, Lesser Spotted Eagles pouring out of the clouds and Lesser Mole-rat (the eagles, and not the Mole-rat, were pouring out of the clouds!) are items s that I personally enjoyed, not forgetting the Sombre Tit which was a new bird for everybody including Cliff - it's always a challenge to find a new bird for Cliff. Just about every day ended with a memorable wildlife event. Wildlife aside, I'm quite sure that locational content, visits to some very special environments, comfortable well-located hotels, good food and good company are collective ingredients that also weigh importantly into final appraisal of the adventure. Ultimately the overall experience could not have been so full and rewarding without the great expertise and tireless efforts of our guide and driver Pavel Simeonov, whose unerring sharp-eyed vigilance ensured that we didn't miss a thing . . . and whose no-nonsense-don't-easily-suffer-fools approach to traffic situations instilled the greatest of confidence.

Autumn Wildlife Checklist


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e-mail davidkent@onetel.com

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