Wednesday 27 April 2016

Bulgaria Trip - Background and Day 1 - 22nd April

This is the tale of the worst moment in my birding life, one that I shall look back on with regret for the rest of my days. At the age of 14 on 16th May 1985 I had convinced my Mum to let me take the day off school as the conditions looked good for a seawatch at St. Catherine’s Point, the wind had gone south and it was prime time for Pomarine Skua. I was up early and began the 45 minute cycle ride from home. But I decided to stop at a local woodland, Gladices on the way. There were good numbers of birds around and I was delayed so much so that I didn’t arrive at St. Catherine's Point at all. Latter that day my heart sank in absolute disbelief, a Wallcreeper had flown in off the sea and pitched on the rock just off the seawatch point before heading east along the cliff face, I could not believe it and the gravity of missing a once in a lifetime event hit me hard and still does 31 years later. I have tried to see Wallcreeper in the Himalayas and the Pyrenees since, in the Alps near to Briancon I saw one fly from a cliff face at least 300m above me, I saw a silhouette and nothing more. It is a bird I have wanted to see for many years, my true nemesis bird. So, after visiting the Neophron Tours stand at the Bird Fair at Rutland in 2014 and speaking to Minko Madzharov I realised that Bulgaria would offer me one of the best chances of seeing this species plus a few other ticks. So, on 22nd April our flight was scheduled and Sarah and I were off.

The entire trip was organised by Dimiter Georgiev the director of the excellent Neophron Tours who booked hotels and provided our guide, Minko Madzharov. The cost for the four days was 928 Euros for the two of us but we did go for a slightly more expensive hotel, the Trigrad Hotel, and so the trip could be done a little more cheaply particularly if there is a small group. I would not hesitate in recommending Neophron Tours for any trip to Bulgaria, Dimiter was very helpful and responsive during the planning of the trip (he guides as well) and Minko is an excellent guide and by the end of the trip we had become good friends. Nephron Tours can be contacted via their website here.

22nd April
At 03:00 our alarm went off and we hurriedly headed to Terminal 5 for our British Airways flight to Sophia, Bulgaria. We arrived at the airport at 05:30 and had plenty of time to have breakfast of smoked salmon and Champagne before heading to the BA lounge where further glasses of Champagne were supped, it was still only 07:30. Our 08:20 flight left on time and we were soon winging our way south-east. We landed in Sophia at 13:25, gathered our bags and met with Minko who was waiting at the airport for us. We loaded our bags and after driving around the multi-storey car park a couple of times we were off and promptly stuck in a small traffic jam in Sophia.  We headed east on the A1, I picked out Red-rumped Swallow and White Stork from the car. We then headed south-east through Plovdiv before stopping at an area of woodland and grassland to the south of Plovdiv for a break in the driving. Here a short walk through grassland and scrub produced Cuckoo, Black-headed Wagtail, Little Ringed Plover and five Whinchat. There were many butterflies here including Marsh Fritillary, Brimstone, Comma, Painted Lady, Brown Argus and a diversity of blues but while there appeared to be five or six species I was only able to identify Adonis Blue. A fine male Eastern Green Lizard was present among five females.

Marsh Fritillary - Near to Plovdiv 

Marsh Fritillary - Near to Plovdiv 

Adonis Blue - Near to Plovdiv 

Adonis Blue - Near to Plovdiv 

Southern Festoon - Near to Plovdiv 

Ground Lackey - Near to Plovdiv 

Lady Orchid - Near to Plovdiv 

Lady Orchid - Near to Plovdiv

Reichenbach's Iris - Near to Plovdiv 

Common Cuckoo - Near to Plovdiv 

After an hour or so here we headed on, the mountains became larger and more imposing before we eventually turned into a wooded gorge. The transition between flat arable land and the pine, spruce, oak, beech and ash clad river gorge was remarkable and it wasn’t long before the mountains of the Western Rhodopes climbed above us, rocky outcrops appeared and as we joined the Trigrad River we entered a beautiful, narrow, deep and rather claustrophobic gorge - perfect Wallcreeper habitat! We stopped at a lay-by just to the north of the 'Devil's Throat' a deep cave in the Trigrad Gorge and there, above the road, Minko pointed out a small crevice with a nest - a Wallcreeper nest and reassured us that this was an active nest. The light was fading and we were keen to get some dinner and catch-up with sleep so we headed for Trigrad and checked into the very nice Trigrad Hotel. Stepping onto the balcony which overlooked the village we were greeted by singing Black Redstart and White Wagtail and a rustic roof-scape. Beer, wine a beautiful fresh trout and then bed - sorted!

Trigrad - The view from our balcony

White Wagtail - Trigrad

Black Redstart - Trigrad

Links to the Other Days of the Trip