Bulgaria Part One

08th May 2014
And so to Bulgaria………… for a week pointing the lens at migrating waders, hopefully. Timing a visit to catch the migration isn't an exact science and you will always miss plenty of birds you'd like to snap and get a few you didn't expect. This trip fitted that category perfectly….

Excellent Company with Dobromir (Dobry to us, fewer syllables) guiding & driving: http://www.spatiawildlife.com/en/

The epitome of cute - a Lesser Spotted Woodpecker in amongst the fruit blossom. Tiny, tiny bird.

Living in the UK, I don't think we appreciate the sheer scale of bird migration. You might stake out Spurn Head or the Norfolk Coast and see birds drop down after crossing the channel, grateful to have a rest and a snack, but you don't see the sheer numbers that cross over certain Mediterranean hotspots such as the Via Pontico before heading further North.

Bulgaria is a great country to see this bird movement, and lying by a bird-attractive wetland should be just the sort of spot I like.

I've been to Bulgaria before. It is a great country to see birds which are becoming exceedingly rare in England. I reckon this is largely down to their agricultural practices. To my eyes, used to intensive farming, massive use of chemicals and only lip service to wildlife (i.e. when an EEC subsidy is involved. Cynical, me!!!!), Bulgaria seems almost idyllic. Extremely green and cultivated, but not intensively so. It is not unusual to see groups of people working in the fields using scythes. A shepherd & big scary dog, tending and moving a herd of cattle or flock of sheep is the norm - as there is little enclosure. Dobry says: when driving through Bulgaria you have to stop and clean insects from the windscreen avery 30 minutes, when you drive West through Germany towards the UK, you simply don't have to! This mass of insects makes for good bird food.

Obviously Bulgaria isn't idyllic. The villages seem depleted of young people. Demolition is an expense saved as buildings, both rural & industrial, are left to decay. The towns are still dominated by inefficient (no insulation at all, I'm told), communist block architecture which look dreadful from the exterior. The towns appear completely utilitarian with no nod towards primary colours or 'leisure activitiy provision', except the ubiquitous mobile phone. That being said, we were not on a sightseeing tour and pretty much ignored everything but birds - we were very focused, if you'll excuse the pun. Arf arf.

A Willow Tit. Yep, same as the UK...

This was never going to be a trip likely to capture big, colourful crowd-pleasing species. It was pretty certain that you could rule out the big five, and Polar Bears, almost immediately. Rather it was to capture images of birds that are very difficult to get in the UK, and in a photogenic way. I was not interested in record shots, but would use the light - good, bad and indifferent, to make the best possible image. Additionally I'm a believer of staking out a patch rather than chasing rumours of where birds might be, so I spent more time than most in the same spot. I'm an ambush hunter…… In many ways this worked out well for me.

I, almost obtusely, looked for early morning backlighting (when there was sun) in an attempt to avoid bird-on-a-stick record type images and search for something more interesting. Some of these may be a bit marmite, but it was more testing and fun to do. I am more interested in the image than recording a long list of birds, so thanks to Richard for his id skills on some of the more ambiguous species.

Apparantly, a Citrine Wagtail…….probably. Part of a large flock of mixed Wagtails. To be honest, I thought this was just another variation on the Yellow/Grey species

A Common Sandpiper in the early morning mist

So onto the birdies…… By the end of the week these species seemed ubiquitous, but to me they were very pleasing. There was a constant population of Common Sandpiper, Wood Sandpiper, Ruff, Greenshank and Godwit. A Corn Bunting singing from every available high point. Every so often there would be a Snipe, a random flock of confusing Wagtail, and a little group of perky Little Ringed Plover. Marsh Harriers quartered the reed beds. Overhead there would be a constant passage of Storks, Osprey, random raptors and other black dots. What else would drop in?

At the moment I'll just put up a few snaps of the everyday birds.

It was good to be at water level. A small-in-the-frame Wood Sandpiper with a pleasing DOF - and avoiding the pond foliage

A couple of first light Wood Sandpiper

A couple of snaps of backlit Little Ringed Plover

They were very, very confiding

A few words about Uncle Rusi's Guesthouse. This must be one of the most relaxing places I have ever stayed, although it only rated 1Star according to the plaque outside. I speak no Bulgarian, they spoke no English so we communicated by sign language, smiles and, strangely, a couple of French phrases (The sign for 'beer' is a internationally understood gesture implicit in DNA.) The rooms were excellent if you forgave the low ceilings and limp water pressure. The food was splendid (as it was last time in Bulgaria)…….. with a pretty healthy Mediterranean diet - if you ignored the constant supply of chips. Plenty of chunky salad (not something I normally accept as 'food'), and home made goodies - sometimes featuring Auntie Rusi's sisters sheep. To give an example: I stayed in a Premier Inn the night before the flight and the breakfast menu proudly contained a series of brand logo's of well known products to exemplify quality - including a well known brand which separates its yogurt from e-flavouring to make it more troublesome to consume. In Uncle Rusi's when Richard suggested he liked yogurt with some honey and walnuts, out of the kitchen came earthenware bowls of homemade yogurt, a huge jar of honey from the garden hives and a big sack of walnuts. Which is best? Mmmmmm.

Like every garden in Bulgaria there were several fruit trees in blossom, and we were provided with jugs of resulting home made apricot schnapps. The things which lived up the trees were also interesting, particularly a Lesser Spotted Woodpecker who flitted around the village amongst the blossom - see above. Tiny, tiny birds. Like many spots, Uncle Rusi's had a resident Nightingale. Not being familiar with this iconic species, it still came as a surprise when its strong, burbling song carried on all night. I suppose this could have become irritating were it not for the fact we were out every day at around 5am. Morning routine: 4.30am, alarm goes off. Listen to Nightingale for a minute until yappy dog spots the first human movement. Get up, bang head on ceiling. Carry out cursory ablutions. Drink too-hot expresso, scream. Head out to familiar muddy-patch………

One of my favourite birds - the Common Snipe. Beautifully marked, and nicely high key in the early light

One excursion from the usual spot was Varna where there was a good place to snap Black Winged Stilt in golden hour light - which was duly done, see pics etc etc It is very rare when carrying out the first brutal edit of images that you delete so few. Golden light, prancing Black Winged Stilts and a decent snap virtually every time they walked in front of the plain reed background (the spoil heaps didn't make for the same alluring image.) Typical of nature, if you turned 180 degrees there was a power station, cement works and plenty of spoil heaps. In amongst this a flock of migrating Pelican appeared, estimated at 1500. These took flight and carried on their trip, making for a few incongruous snaps - next time. On the next visit there was only a dozen or so.

A 'golden hour' Marsh Sandpiper

A couple of snaps of early morning Black Winged Stilt. I have many..

End of part one…….. next time, various Shanks, a small unspectacular Duck, Spoonbill and some frogs and toads. All mucking around in the mud.

An Egret during one of the many sessions in very flat light