Bulgaria spring trip diary

Second week of May I will be heading off to Bulgaria for a week of bird and mammal photography. Bulgaria is a new destination for me. Like Hungary and Romania, Bulgaria is an interesting country for wildlife photography: it is unspoilt, has many different habitats and plenty of interesting birds and mammals to photograph. The weather should be dry and warm.

The first part of this trip will take me to the Eastern Rhodopi mountains near the town of Madzarovo, close to the valley of the river Arda. The target in this area are the resident vultures. From specially erected hides I hope to photograph Griffon and Egyptian vultures, as well as Common Buzzard and Golden Eagles. There is an outside chance for Wolf and Fox.

The second part of this trip will take me to the North-West of Bulgaria, to an area called: Suha Reka. Suka Reka is a valley with cliffs up to 30 meter. This unspoilt area combines various habitats and offers an immense diversity of birds, butterflies and wildlife. Nearly 200 bird species are registered in the area and from a number of hides I hope to photograph species like: Hawfinch, various Woodpecker species, Roller, Bee-eater, passerines. From a canopy hide I hope to photograph one of the most beautiful (and difficult birds): the Golden oriole.

I will try and update my blog every day and I hope you will follow me on my travels though Bulgaria.

Egyptian vultures (photo courtesy Geordi Gerdjikov)

Golden Oriole (photo courtesy Sergey Panayotev)

Griffon Vultures (photo courtesy Geordi Gerdjikov)

Saturday 16th of May

I just want to rewind one day. Yesterday was Frannie's birthday. We had a lovely barbecue with the children, Fran's mum and good friend Caroline and daughter. After the barbeque we watched Pride and may i say Fran: a great choice! 

This morning was a bit of a slow start but i managed to get going at the end and by 07.00 hours i was sitting with Kevin Lunham, next to the bacon rolls in the British Airways Club Europe lounge. The flight was a bit delayed, due to a technical issue but eventually we were able to make our way to Sofia. 

We arrived around 14.00 hours and Sergey was already waiting for us at arrival. We put all the gear in the back of the Subaru and off we went for the nearly 5 1/2 hours drive to Madjarovo in the South western part of Bulgaria., close to the Greek border. Bulgaria is in many ways very similar to the other 2 countries i visited (Romania and Hungary). Derelict buildings, potholes every where and a very unspoilt country site.

We arrived at Madjarovo around 19.00 hours. A small village surrounded by high cliffs. Ideal for Griffon and Egyptian vultures. The small hotel is lovely ; near the river and with views of the beautiful countryside all around. We went for a walk up the cliffs to see if we could spot any vultures. We did manage to see a few in the distance. Tomorrow we will be heading for a special erected hide and hopefully we will photograph the various vulture species as well as Black kite and an outside chance for wolf and Red fox. We will need to be in the hide before sunrise and we will not be able to leave till sunset. It will be a long day.....as long as it is rewarding!

Our Vulture hotel in Madjarovo

Sunday 17th of May

Up before the crack of dawn and arrived at the Vulture hide around 05.30. The hide was built near a ridge and the background were distant mountains, which makes a nice change from a blue sky. It was a very still morning and it promised to be a very hot day.

The hide was pretty comfortable affair. 2 beds, comfo chairs, a very small chemical toilet and four openings to stick your lens out. After setting up the equipment, the waiting game started. No need to wait long as the first hooded crows and ravens arrived at the carcass. With the light getting brighter, all of a sudden, a large number of Griffin vultures approached the hide. They landed behind the hide somewhere. Shortly after that, the very rare Egyptian vulture appeared and started to feed on the carcass. There are only 3 breeding pair of this beautiful vulture in the Eastern Rhodopi mountains.

With the sun getting stronger, a number of Griffin vultures, flew in and settled in the grass away from the carcass. They are very wary birds, so one has to wait moving lenses around, till the birds settle down and start to feed. For whatever reason, the birds didn't come to the carcass and unfortunately they were scared away by the numerous stray dogs, a real nuisance in Eastern europe.

Soon things turned quiet and the temperature in the hide became rather uncomfortable. So with nothing to aim my lens at, i decided to close my eyes for a bit. Later on a pair of Black kites paid the carcass a visit. i was glad i could finally make use of my lens! I got some really nice images from the birds flying around and feeding on the ground.

Black kite in flight

Other then that....there was not an a lot happening. Fresh meat ws being laid out, so maybe tomorrow will be more productive for the Griffon vultures. A thunderstorm, in the meantime, was approaching. Despite it getting dark and gloomy, no rain fell. At around 18.30 the sun broke through the clouds and a family of Egyptian vultures made an appearance. The light was now superb and i managed to get a lot of nice in-flight images as well as images of the birds on the ground. 

By 20.00 the guide picks usup. A long day has come to an end. A cool beer and a nice meal will be awaiting for Kevin and me. Tomorrow another day in the hide with, hopefully, some Griffon vulture images to boot!

Egyptian vulture in flight

Monday 18th of May

An even earlier start then yesterday. we hardly had 4 hours sleep but as  real die hards, we got up without feeling sorry for ourself. Well to be honest: i did feel sorry for myself! Half an hour later and we were settling down in the Vulture hide for the last 15 hour session. Hopefully with the fresh carcass out, the Griffin vultures will play ball today.

First light and the Egyptian vultures appeared, followed by Raven and Hooded crow. A bit later a squadron of Griffon vultures fly from the opposite cliffs towards the hide. It truly is an amazing sight. After a little while the first Griffin vulture lands near the hide, followed by another 13 vultures. Unfortunately a stray dog scares the birds away but a little while later they are all back!

The whole morning we are surrounded by eating, fighting, preening and sunbathing Griffon vultures. In a nutshell that seems to be the life of a Griffon vulture. I take many images and it is a great experience. The photography is not as easy as it sounds: the fighting always seems to happen in the middle of a group of vultures, so the end result becomes a bit messy. I try for solitary birds. For this kind of photography from a hide the best options are a zoom like a 100-400 and a shorter long tele, like a 400 or 500mm. In comparison to Egyptians vultures, the Griffon vultures are massive!

For most of the day the hide is surrounded by action. Not only vultures but also by the handsome Black kite. I manage some great flight shots. Not as easy as it sounds. As the birds are flying rather erratic and hardly ever land on the ground.

The Black kite

Later on in the afternoon the Griffon vultures disappear but we are entertained by the Black kites and the ever present Egyptian vultures. It seems the hooded crows have been smoking some Dutch grass. The whole afternoon is spent harassing the Black kites and the Egyptian vultures. 

Slowly the day comes to an end. It is a truly fantastic place to photograph raptors like vultures. I can recommend this place without any hesitation. The guides are very knowledgeable and the small hotel where i stayed is fantastic. By 21.00 hours i am back at the hotel, rather tired to say the least. Tomorrow the 6 hour drive to North east Bulgaria, to a place called Suha Reka. Target species there are: Golden oriole, Wryneck and other passerines. 

Kevin and me in front of the Vulture hide, please note that i didn't photoshop Kevin's white legs

Tuesday 19th of May

Today we decided to try for Black storks along the beautiful Arda river. Black storks frequently feed along the banks of the river. The tent was erected and we waited and waited....The storks clearly had other ideas. the only bird we were able to take pictures of was a singing Grey wagtail in front of our hide.

Grey wagtail along Arda river

Around 10.00 Sergey picks us up and drove us back to the hotel to pack the bags for the long drive to Ogny in the North-west of Bulgaria, close to Romenia. We said goodbye to the fantastic staff of the hotel and off we went. We saw a Wildcat crossing the road and the countryside was stunning. As i wrote earlier: the roads in Bulgaria are one big pothole. Don't be surprised to see a car coming straight at you on the wrong side of the road, trying to avoid a deep pothole on the other side of the road. Driving is a challenge and some drivers seem to have a death wish. Not good for my stress levels but Sergey is an excellent driver.

First stop after 200 km is the seaside resort Burgads A total dump and waste of time. A mixture of tasteless concrete hotels and god knows how many water slides. Apparently it is very popular with the Brits because of the good weather and reasonable prices. Not my cup of tea. Next stop was Varda and from there on another 100 km to Ogny. We arrived there at 19.00.

Hotel Abrit was built last year by Russians and was situated on the banks of a small lake. Popular with anglers. I had a nice room overlooking the lake and went i went onto my balcony, a Little owl was sitting in the gutter! How cool is that? A cold beer and an early night. First stop the next day was the famous tower hide in Sergey's back garden.

Sitting down are: Nusha and Marin of the Vulture center, standing are Sergey and Yana, manager of the hotel

Wednesday 20th of May

Up at the crack of dawn! In the car and we are off to the tower hide. A 30 minutes drive later we arrive. The tower hide is 7 meters high and overlooks the canopy of the surrounding trees.In front of the hide is a dead tree and this is where many different bird species can be photographed. 

Camera and lens are set up. A 500 or 600 mm with and without converter works best. Soon we hear and see the first Orioles but none of them decide to use the dead tree as a perch.The first visitor is a male Black headed bunting. A great looking bird, singing its heart out! He soon becomes our personal friend as he will be there every day following. The area is so rich in birds: Nightingales, Common and lesser whitethroat, Red breasted flycatcher.  Ortolan, Hoopoe, Starling displaying, Sombre tit and many more use the tree. Unbelievable! We even spot a Jackal at the end of the garden.

By 10.00 we call it a day and decide to have breakfast in the lovely garden of the cottage. There is also a second hide for drinking birds. We didn't use the hide but it will attract a variation of birds. So worthwhile trying if you are thinking of going there!

Black headed bunting from the tower hide

After breakfast we head to the forest hide. The hide is built next to a purpose built pond where birds come to drink and to bath. The first 2 weeks of may were very wet and maybe that is also the reason that not that many birds showed up. We did photography birds like Hawfinch, Turtle dove, Song thrush, Sombre tit, Robin, Great and Middle spotted woodpecker.

Highlight for me were the displaying Turtle doves, eventually they mated in front of the hide. Something rarely seen or photographed. Around 14.00 we decide to leave the hide and spend the rest of the afternoon in a small valley, called the Valley of the Suha river. This valley holds the largest Souslik population in Bulgaria. The Souslik is a small rodent and endangered due to loss of habitat but here they thrive. We put up the tent but the Sousliks remain underground. PErhaps due to the cloudy and somewhat cool afternoon. After a while we give up and decide to drive around in the valley and see if we can photograph the birds and sousliks from the car. This valley is also a great palce for Isabelline wheatear, fairly rare in Bulgaria. We manage to photograph them, as well as Northern wheatear and finally Sousliks!

We are back in the hotel around 19.00. A fine day has come to and end. 2 more days to go. Tomorrow again a visit to the Tower hide. Will the Golden oriole finally show?   We have diner outside on the patio of the hotel. We see the Little owl flying around looking for prey and in the small reedbed a Great reed warbler is singing its heart out. Bliss.

Mating turtle doves

Thursday 21st of May

Same old story i know. Up early again, a beautiful still day with fog over the lake. Jump in the Subaru and off we went to the tower hide. The 30 minute drive is through dirt tracks across the fields. You can see many derelict buildings, going back to the time that the Soviet Union was "ruling" Bulgaria.

We settle down quickly in the tower and wait for things to happen. Today is a bit of a slow start but more often then not things can change from one minute to the other. Patience is a virtue in this hobby. All of a sudden the tree bursts with activity. A singing Black headed bunting, followed by a singing Ortolan. Then out of nowhere a pale warbler appears. Warblers are not my forte but with the help of the Peterson field guide i come to the conclusion that it is a Garden warbler. More often heard then seen.

Camera's are clicking away and more often then not we seem to have the debate: converter on or off? What if the Golden oriole pops up and we have the converter attached....the bird might be too close and we would miss the opportunity. Sometimes you have to take the gamble and live by the decision you took!

Singing Ortolan

Then something really special happens: Sergey noticed another warbler singing in the tree. I instantly knew what it was but i only know the Dutch name, so not very useful for my English speaking friends in the tower hide. It was a Barred warbler. One of the most secretive warblers, always in under growth and i honestly can't say i have seen many decent images of this bird. Super is the word that came to my head!

Still no Golden oriole. We can see them flying but none decide to use the tree. All of a sudden an explosion of yellow in front of us! A male and female Oriole land in the tree. The male bird is perfectly positioned. 15 seconds and 13 images is all that it took. The birds disappeared as quick as they came. Orioles are restless birds and you really need to be prepared. Thank god we all were! What a stunning experience and we were all over the moon that we were able to photograph this ultimate bird.

We left the the tower hide for a late breakfast. After breakfast we made our way to a large bee-eater colony. More then 50 pairs breed there. We put up the hide on a gently sloping hill. Sitting in the hide was not easy because if you would sit too far back you would roll down the hill including companion, tent and equipment.

I have photographed Bee-eater before but i had never seen so much interaction! Fighting, preening, chasing...you name it. We took many images that afternoon and spent well over 6 hours in the tiny hide before Sergey picked us up.Back in the hotel we had a few more beers and a couple of glasses wine to celebrate a fantastic day. Tomorrow the last day of the trip with again a visit to the tower hide and another bee-eater colony in the afternoon.

Bee-eaters

Friday 22nd of May

The final day of this fantastic trip. Again off to the tower hide. Another fine day. the weather has been good the whole week with no rain what so ever. It all starts off again a bit slow but soon the first birds start to arrive. The Black headed bunting is always present. The Ortolan shows up, followed by a flotilla of birds including Sombre tit. Then a Turtle dove appears and sits in a fantastic position, warming itself in the first rays of sunlight. A bit later a Hoopoe appears and uses the tree to "hoopoe" for a while. 

Golden oriole stops by as well but this time the male bird is too low for us to get any images. So we just watch it from the tower hide. Just like yesterday the bird is there for a handful of seconds before it disappears. The Sergey sees a another small bird in the dead tree: a Red breasted flycatcher. this time i am too slow to get any images but i suspect that Kevin did manage to get a few images. the Barred warbler shows up again and this time in better light and a better position. How lucky can you get!

We call it a day. All in all the tower hide has been fantastic. Of course you need a bit of luck. Every year is different but i think we all agreed that we got a lot out of this dead tree!

We head back to the hotel for a rest. It is very warm today and the sunlight is very harsh. After lunch we head for a small Bee-eater colony down the road from the hotel. A small hide is awaiting us and we quickly put up the gear. Soon the Bee-eaters appear and we take many images of these birds, as well as a displaying Starling and a female northern Wheatear. Around 18.00 we decide to call it a day. Back in the hotel we start to pack our kit, followed by diner and an early night. Tomorrow the long drive back to Sofia awaits us. A fantastic week has come to an end.

A Starling can be beautiful

Saturday 23rd of May

We left Hotel Abrit at 06.30 for the long drive back to Sofia. It should take around 6 hours with a few small stops along the way. We said goodbye to the staff and off we went. We arrived at Sofia airport around 12.30, our return flight was scheduled for 14.30, so plenty of time to check it. We said goodbye to Sergey Panayotev. i can highly recommend Sergey. He will do everything he can to get you to the birds. His tower hide and other hides are fantastic. Of course the Golden oriole is the star bird but there are so many other birds to photograph. It is really THAT good. We arrive back on London by 16.00 and i am home by 17.00. A trip to Bulgaria with Sergey will be a success for sure and to use Sergey's catch phrase; everything is under control.

The Arda river and Rhodopi mountains 

Factfile Bulgaria trip

i arranged this trip through Sergey Panatoyev of Naturetravel (www.naturetravel.eu). I can highly recommend Sergey. He is an excellent host and guide. He will do all he can to make your trip that extra bit special. The cost for this all inclusive trip worked out at around £750. Accomodation was in a basic but good hotel in the Rhodopi mountains and in a good hotel in Ogny. 

I flew British Airways from London Heathrow to Sofia. Flying time just under 3 hours. Cost for a business class ticket worked out at around £450. Weather during the trip was excellent, no rain, plenty of sun and temperatures between 23-26 degrees.

Camera equipment used during the trip: Canon EOS1DX and Canon 7DMarkII bodies. Lenses used: Canon 600 mm and Canon 100-400 mm zoom as well as converters. For landscape and general shooting i used a Sony A6000 with a Zeiss 16-50 zoom lens. Tripods are recommended in the hides. The vulture hides will ask a lot of your stamina (as well as the early starts). It was extremely hot ,the second day in the vulture hide,with temperatures around 29 degrees. If anyone wants more information or has any questions, feel free to contact me anytime.

A big thank you goes to Kevin Lunham. Always good to have you around for photography, a beer and of course wine gums!

For my daughter