Bulgaria provides opportunities for both leisure and "advanced" avian watching
"We are not all lonely nerds and train-spotters". That is what most birdwatchers feel they need to add in defence of themselves when confessing to their secret passion for finding and following their feathered friends. Birders have often been labelled as compulsive "list tickers" or "twitchers" whose love for avian wildlife comes second to their desire to accumulate an ever increasing number of bird sightings. With over 10,000 species of birds worldwide there is plenty of scope for those with this obsession, but the range of people interested in this pastime is wide and varied. There are amongst us some who like nothing more than a gentle stroll out in the countryside coupled with a great opportunity to observe the flora and fauna. This happy band are the "hobby" birders, just as delighted with a quick glimpse of a common or garden Chaffinch, Fringilla coeleb, as they would be sighting one of the lesser spotted species, like the eponymous Lesser Spotted Woodpecker, Dendrocopus minor. Fortunately for us all, Bulgaria provides opportunities for people at both ends of this scale and the variety of habitats and species biodiversity on offer is unequalled in Europe.
Birdwatching in northern Bulgaria
Take for example the northeast Dobrudzha region of Bulgaria, which is situated along the Via Pontica, one of the world's most important migratory routes for birds, and is home to the Srebarna Biosphere Reserve. This park, which is protected under the Ramsar convention of 1975 was designated as a World Biosphere Reserve in 1977 and recognised as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1985. It is the only place in Bulgaria where you will find a breeding colony of the majestic by Mike Black;photography by Pavel Simeonov (Le Balkan/Branta Tours), Jerry Black and Lee GregoryDalmatian Pelican, Pelecanus crispus, a huge bird standing well over 1 metre tall and with a 3 metre wingspan. Unfortunately this species is becoming very rare in Europe and other parts of the world, but work is being done by the Regional Inspectorate of Environment and Water in partnership with Le Balkan Foundation to ensure the ongoing success of this site.
The reserve is the residence of hundreds of species of birds, plants and animals, and easily accessible thanks to recently opened lakeside walking and biking trails. There are plenty of lookout points to stop and observe the wildlife and scenery, or just to rest and soak up the peace and quiet. Another of the rare species that you should catch sight of here is the Pygmy Cormorant, Phalacrocorax pygmeus, the noticeably smaller cousin of the more widespread and often seen Cormorant, Phalacrocorax carbo. This bird is also an endangered species and here is one of the few places where you are almost guaranteed a sighting. Don't forget to scan the hedgerows and trees for some of our smaller "winged wonders".
Many migrating birds pass through this area and a good number of them choose Srebarna as the place to spend their summer break. You may see a Glossy Ibis, Plegadis falcinellus, a Spoonbill, Platalea leucorodia, or the brightly coloured Bee-Eater, Merops apiaster, and Kingfisher, Alcedo atthis. Srebarna is worth visiting at anytime of year, but the best opportunities for birdwatching are during the months of May and June when many of these migratory species will be found and the heat of the day is more bearable for walking. Don't forget to take a bottle of water with you, should it run dry you can easily top it up from one of the fresh water springs along the way.
Srebarna Reserve is located just off Highway 21, 15 km east of Silistra. The park stretches over 900 hectares, from the village of Srebarna to Vetren on the banks of the Danube.
If you head east from Srebarna and follow the Bulgarian-Romanian border down to the Black Sea, you'll arrive at the coast in or near the village of Durankulak, where you will come across the Branta Tours Birdwatching Centre. It sits in an ideal position overlooking Durankulak Lake. This is a dually important area as it is not only home to some very rare wintering bird flocks, but also an archaeologically significant site with evidence of some of the earliest settlers in Europe. Bronze and Copper Age settlements have been uncovered here, the most interesting of which was unearthed on the small island in the middle of Durankulak lake. The brackish water lakes and lagoons, both here and at nearby Shabla, are home to a number of extremely rare birds. Top of the list of "must sees" is the Red-breasted Goose, Branta ruficollis, a winter visitor that spends the rest of the year at its breeding grounds on the Arctic tundra. Their striking chestnut red plumage is a delight to see and with sometimes up to 50,000 of these birds present this is a sight not to be missed. You may also catch a glimpse of the White-Fronted Goose, Anser albifrons, or its diminutive relative the Lesser White-Fronted, Anser erythropus. The reed beds surrounding the area provide temporary accommodation for a great variety of visitors including one long distance traveller from India, the marvellously melodic Paddyfield Warbler, Acrocephalus Agricola.
Drop into the visitor's centre for information about the region and to plan tours with Pavel and Tatyana the very knowledgeable and helpful Branta team. There is a very nice restaurant adjacent to the lake at Durankulak, or you can find plenty of great places to eat in Shabla. After eating you can while away a few hours wandering around this charming, and on a good day, somewhat sleepy little town.
From here you can take the coastal road passing the Shabla lighthouse down to Cape Kaliakra, looking out along the way for sightings of many types of sea birds such as the Mediterranean Shearwater, Puffinus yelkouan, and the Collared Pratincole, Glareola pratincola. If you are lucky, you may see, recently returned from south of the Sahara desert, the Alpine Swifts, Apus melba, soaring high over the cliffs at Kamen Bryag. When at Kaliakra remember to lower your binoculars from time to time and spend a few minutes scanning the waters for fleeting but spectacular views of the Dolphin schools that populate the sea here. Another speciality not to be missed at Kaliakra is the Pied Wheatear, Oenanthe pleschanka, that flits from pillar to post on the stony hillsides above the restaurant and along the walkways. Peer down from the edge of the cape to the rocks below to catch a glimpse of various marine birds hoping for a free meal from the fishermen's nets. You will often encounter other birders at this spot, some light-hearted and others deadly serious about their favourite occupation, so remember to bring a smile and have your sense of humour with you at all times.
Lake Srebarna is near the Danube River, not far from Silistra
These birding sites and the species I have mentioned cover just a small range of that which is on offer for birdwatchers in the Dobrudja area. There are literally hundreds of different types to be seen here, from 30 or so "birds of prey" to the scores of water and wading species. Accommodation is readily available across the region, from friendly family run B & Bs and guesthouses to five star luxury hotels. You can investigate and explore all of these sites and more in just a week, but you might want to combine your excursion here with a trip over the border into Romania, where you can visit the Danube Delta, another one of Europe's most fascinating birdlife habitats.
So whether you pitch your tent in the camp of either the hardened "twitcher" or the part-time nature lover out for a quiet and relaxing walk, you can all enjoy locating and identifying some of the wonderful birds that the Bulgarian countryside will present. Right across the country, from the loft y rocky crags of the Pirin, Rila and the Rhodope to the Black Sea coast and Lower Danubian plains, you can discover exceptional places to witness the unrivalled and unspoilt beauty in the natural jewel that is Bulgaria.
For more on birds, bird watching, tours and accommodation in northeastern Bulgaria go to www.srebarnabirding.com, www.branta-tours.com, www.srebarna-bg.com.
Save the birds from the boars
Despite the efforts made in improving the breeding conditions for the Srebarna Dalmatian Pelican colony, for the second consecutive year a serious problem has arisen and compromised the earliest breeding pelicans.
A sounder of Wild Boar has entered the colony and destroyed somewhere in the region of 45-50 Pelican eggs and their nests. As a result of this some members of the colony, around 40 pairs shifted their location 850 metres south where they have recommenced breeding and laying on this secondary site. The rest of the colony has dispersed most likely to lakes across the Danube.
In response to this incident we are asking for assistance from the government, NGOs and the general public in implementing the following actions.
The construction of a boundary fence that will deny access to the breeding site to land based predators. This will be done at a time sensitive to the colonies breeding activities with as little impact as possible on the birds.
The location of a discreet hide at an environmentally sympathetic distance to be staff ed by both paid and volunteer workers who will guard the sites during the breeding season thereby ensuring the safety of future egg clutches and guaranteeing successful fledging.
If you wish to join us, please go to www.PetitionOnline.com/srebarna/petition.html
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