Spatia Wildlife – Birds and wildlife photography Tour – 9th to 16th June 2013
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Day 1 – Sunday 9th June.
Trip to birmingham airport, for 09.20h flight to Sofia, via Paris. Flight from Birmingham to Sofia, via Paris [Charles de Gaulle]. Nearly didn’t make the connection in Paris, as I was late taking off from Birmingham and delayed parking on stand at Paris, then had to travel to the opposite end of airport, then got stuck in security. Got there with 5 mins to spare. Don’t think I’ll do the Paris 2-stop again, although the alternative is to travel to Heathrow!
Landed at Sofia on time, picked up by Gradich, our tour leader for 2 days, then a 3 hour drive east to the centre of Bulgaria, a village callaed Gabarevo. Good sightings of Hooded Crow en-route. The acommodation, how can I put this, a rustic hotel, clean, but basic, no change of towels, or maid. The village seems to be a gypsy village, as a lot of Bulgarian villages are. Quite friendly. The hotel had wi-fi, so that’s good. Did not arrive until late, so had a late supper of salad, bread, with herbs and also a chicken stew in an earthenware pot. Terry and Wendy, my compatriats on this trip – very nice people.
Day 2- Monday 10th June.
Breakfast at 7am, was some cheese, orange, coffee, very strong and some salami, which I didn’t bother with. Travelled 10 mins to the river site, where the Bee-eaters were and set up in a portable hide approx 10m from perch. Some activity initially in the air, but took 1 hour before the first bee eater landed. A stunning bird, of turquoise, yellow and black, with a deep black bill and piercing red eye. Lots of shots here, sometimes with 2 birds, passing food – great stuff. At the same time, Isabelline Wheatear, White Stork, Woodchat Shrike, Syslick (small squirrel-like mammal), Northern Wheatear, Corn Bunting, Starling, Red-backed Shrike and a Long legged Buzzard. Managed a few bee-eater flight shots, although would like to try for some more later in the week. All in all, a great morning. In the afternoon, went to another drinking pool site, but this was occupied by Germans. Never mind, we moved on to another site, for Corn Bunting and Red-backed Shrike. Not very productive, but managed some shots of Corn Bunting, distant Red-backed Shrike and a superb pair of obliging Stonechats, in tip-top condition. On the drive back, saw my first ever Hoopoe fly across the road and a White Stork nest on top of a telegraph pole. Back home to the hotel for supper, fresh salad and an omelette, plus a beer. A great first day! The wind got up [not just from the omelette] and there was a spectacular thunder and lightning storm, with lots of rain. Crashed out at approx 10.00pm, dog-tired. Slept ok, but lots of music playing somewhere and a lot of cats fighting!!
Day 3 – Tuesday 11th June
Trip to the Bee eater site, to see the Wryneck, at it’s nest site, 100 yards beyond the Bee-eaters. Good views of the Wryneck, both male and female, feeding the young. Difficult light, as the tree was half in light and half in shadow. As the sun came round, the light got better. After last night’s torrential storms, the air was very clear. After a spell with the Wryneck, I decided to go on walkabout, looking for Isabeline Wheatear and Red-backed Shrike, whilst Terry and Wendy pursued the Bee-eaters for a second spell. After wandering around and getting a few shots of the Shrikes and Wheatear, I spotted a solitary Hoopoe and managed to get some photographs of it and a black-eared Wheatear and a Turtle Dove.
After about 30 mins there were two of them, males I think, and they were fighting or displaying, not sure, but there were only two of them anyway. Got some shots and some with the crest raised, they look ok, will have to check when I get back.
Back to the hotel for some salad – lunch and a drink, then off to Grad’s lower yard feeding pool station, to photograph some other birds, including a Nightingale, if possible.
The cats around the hotel are a bit manky and as usual they are thin and always hungry, not sure if they feed them at all. There’s one particular little black kitten, I’ve named Limpy, who has a bad rear left leg, I think someone has trod on him accidentally and he is now lame. How sad. He’d like it in Derby.
Went out in the afternoon to Grad’s underground hide near his hometown. Had Nightingale – good views, Tree Sparrow, House sparrow, Great spotted Woodpecker, Jay, Chaffinch, Greenfinch, Nuthatch, Collared Dove, Blackbird, Hawfinch female feeding young male, heard Turtle Dove, oh and frogs. Rained a bit, light not brilliant, but very good hide. We may go there tomorrow, as the weather forecast is fair to crap. Picked some beautiful wild cherries off Grad’s tree, very juicy, ate too many. Will have the shits probably tomorrow, but never mind eh? Had salad and omelette again, afterwards some ice cream cake. Turned in at 10pm, recharged mine and the camera’s batteries and review images. Tremendous rain thunder and lightning storms in the night and the bloody room leaked water right over my bed! Woke up with dripping water, had to move bed sideways. Never mind.
Day 4 – 12th June 2013
Woke up at 05.30h to sound of Collared Doves cooing, looked out the door and the rain has stopped, but it’s very overcast at the moment. Caught up a few emails and will drift off to the restaurant to find a coffee or tea, or something. Brrrr, it’s very cold this morning.
Having watched half of Star Trek Wrath of Khan, I mosey in for breakfast, of tea, orange, cheese and bread. I said rustic didn’t I? As it was raining, we headed down for the Suslick site. These are small ground squirrels and are cute, I got some decent shots. En-route we spotted some Crested Larks, Red backed Shrike, a Great Reed Warbler, heard-only and some black headed yellow wagtails, plus Swallows, Sand and House martins, Spanish sparrow and on the way back 3 Hoopoe. After lunch, a trip to drop Terry and Wendy off at a field full of orchids, whilst Boris [our second guide in the week] and I went to look for the Golden oriole nest. We got some half decent images. There was also a Barred Warbler there, no shots I’m afraid and a Short-toed Eagle. After that we all went to Grad’s hide, had the usual birds, plus a stonking male Hawfinch and a male Syrian Woodpecker. Late supper st 9pm. Off to bed, where I am now in a different room, which hopefully won’t leak if it rains again tonight.
Day 5 – 13th June 2013
Breakfast at 07.00h, didn’t bother with much, only orange juice, as we’d only eaten at 10pm night before. Set off to photograph the Golden Oriole at it’s Walnut tree nest on the hillside. Boris and I had been there the day before and got some half decent shots, but it was very windy this morning, so who knows. Got there, walked up the hillside with all gear and the Oriole was already feeding. I think they got some good shots, I went after the Barred Warbler, which had been calling the day before. No such luck again, but I managed some views of it, plus several Red-backed shrikes – they’re everywhere, and the Golden Oriole, Common and Long-legged Buzzard, and Corn bunting. Left after an hour or so, as it had rained heavily and the wind had picked up quite a bit, keeping the birdies down in the bottoms of the bushes. In fact the Oriole female had stayed on the nest to protect the little chicks from being blown out onto the floor 4 metres below. We walked back down the hill and tried to for Stonechat, but the wind was too strong. After some debate we decided to head down the hill to try for the Black-headed Buntings, next to the rose fields.
Note, this area is famous for the very pure and strong rose oil, which is harvested by gypsies and sold to many of the world’s famous perfumeries. Also, in the distance we could hear loud gunfire – this was from the testing ranges of the kalashnikoff factory, where the guns are made. Locals nickname this area Guns n Roses valley.
Heading back to the hotel for a light lunch of salad [healthy eh?], some bread and some yoghurt, honey and walnuts, plus an orange juice and some more tea. At 2.30pm Boris and I headed to Suslick-land, to try and photograph the Great Reed Warbler, but it was not showing at all, but we could hear it well. Sightings of Red-backed shrike, Corn Bunting, Crested Lark and also a White Stork, plus a distant Black Stork. Back to hotel again, then off to the underground hide, where we dropped off Terry and Wendy, and Boris and I went to the Black headed Bunting site, in the rose fields. After a while and waiting, the BH Bunting responded to the tape lure and we got some decent pictures. Also there were two Barred Warblers, some Corn Buntings, a White Stork, 7 Ravens, and a Nightjar heard only, loads of Red-backed Shrikes, male and female. On the way back from the BH Bunting site we saw more RB Shrike, Corn Buntings, Crested Lark, 2 Hoopoe, a Woodchat Shrike, a Cirl Bunting, House Sparrows, Spanish Sparrows , a Little Owl in a chimney pot, and some Stonechats. Back to the hotel at approx 7pm, quick shower and then supper of salad and mushroom omelette, a beer, ice cream cake and another cup of tea to finish. A massive rain storm again, but thankfully my room was watertight. However, no Internet, the lightning must have brought something down. Bed at 10ish.
Day 6 – 14th June 2013
Breakfast at 07.00h again, this time only toast and jam. The weather was good today, so did not want to miss any light. We went to the Bee-eater site and went on walkabout whilst Terry and Wendy stayed at the cow dung pile, where there were several species of birds, including LRP, Isabelline Wheatear, Swallow, House Martin, Crested Lark. I tried to find the Hoopoe again, but no look, not even heard. Got some good shots of the RB Shrike, plus a juvenile, but not being fed, as the cows were coming down the lane. Heard several Wryneck, but not seen. Long legged buzzard in sky. Went to photograph Isabelline Wheatear from a mobile hide later – very hot in there at middle of the day. Went to Bee eater site and tried some flight shots, ok. Dinner at 1930h. Bed at 10ish. Oh, and we met Stefan, our third guide for the week.
Day 7 – 15th June 2013
Got up early, at 4.45am, to get a dawn start for the Bee eaters. After tea and bread and jam, Stefan, our 3rd tour guide in as many days, and me set off to the short 20 min trip to the Bee-eater valley site. Arriving just before dawn, the Bee eaters were already active, as were the many other myriad of bird species present, LRP, with young, Isabelline Wheatear, Swallow, House and Sand martin, Starling, Golden Oriole, heard, but not seen, RB Shrike, Corn Bunting, Wryneck, White Wagtails, black headed Yellow Wagtails [Motacilla flava feldegg] Long-legged Buzzard, Cuckoo [heard-only], House Sparrows, Tree Sparrow. Settled down in a portable hide, but thd perches had been changed by stefan snd Miro the night before and the bee eaters didn’t like them and were only landing on the single perch. A few shots, but after 2 hrs decided a change was due. I went, with hide, to the next field, where the Woodchat Shrike resided. After 20mins he showed on the perch and got some shots. I moved the perch further forward, but it was a no-show, albeit the shepherd was rounding his cattle up all morning. Had a break for a few minutes at lunch, then had another go at bee eater flight shots, very difficult. At 2.30pm had another crack at the Isabelline Wheatears, trying to get an adult, but only juvvies were showing. Went back in to the Bee eater site for some more flight stuff. Got some decent shots, I think. Back to the hotel for 18.30h, just in time for the road to be closed, as the annual Rose Festival was today, so busy restaurant and lots of loud music, which these eastern Europeans seem to enjoy – very colourful though. Off to pack case at 21.30h, then write this log, then bed.
Day 8 – 16th June 2013
Out at 7am for couple of hours, last minute shots, before leaving hotel at 11am for Sofia, then flight at 17.20h, arrive Birmingham at 21.15h, where hopefully Gill will pick me up. Then back to work. We dropped Terry and Wendy off at their 2nd week hotel, where they were off on a Butterflies week – good luck. Met Dobromir at cafe just outside Sofia, where we swapped vehicles – he went off to do the butterfly tour and his wife took me to the airport.
Overall it was a very impressive trip – great chances for bird photography – relaxed pace, or frenetic, you choose – good food, simple but clean accomodation – cheap, as everything was all-in. It cost me approx. £1100 for the week, for the tour, plus £260 for my Air France flight, plus a bit of spending money in the week, for some fruit, nuts and guide tips, plus a few bits and bobs at the airports. excelent value and I would recommend Spatia Wildlife as a tour operator. All the tour leaders were very knowledgeable in their own foelds and of course they were familiar with the local area and the wildlife.
Bulgaria, as a birding destination is very good – a very poor country, even though it’s in the EU – noted by some road-building contracts, as the native Bulgaria highways are not good for cars, as most local cars show. It can be hot, but not humid, and it can rain, very heavily, but generally at night, which is good. People are very friendly, the language is impossible to read and to understand, best stick to english. The countryside is stunning and unspoilt, the wildlife is very diverse, as is the geography, mountains to valleys. Insects are everywhere, which is why there are so many birds – only a few mosquitos, which was good and no ticks, as far as I could tell.
Not a massive species count, as this was a photography tour, not a birding holiday – I think approx. 48 species – not bad and most photographed.
For a full view of my images see below.