Bulgaria - In search of wintering Red-breasted Geese and more:

5th to 8th February 2010

Members of the group - Lance Degnan and Nick Whitehouse (organisers), Rob Adams, Gary Featherstone, Roger and Sue Bird, Richard Drew, Martin Limbert, Andy Hirst, Brian Chambers, Mick Clay, Dave Gosney.

Bulgarian guide and host - Pavel Simeonov (Branta-Tours).

Day 1: On Friday 5th February 2010 the group set out from Luton airport to Bourgas, the largest city on the Black Sea coast of Bulgaria. We were in search of the Red-breasted Goose, one of Europe&s most enigmatic wintering species, and our long weekend birding trip was focussed on that. Almost the entire world population of this endangered species migrates from its tundra breeding grounds on the Taymyr peninsula to winter in the Dobrudja parts of Romania and Bulgaria. Surprisingly few UK birders have made the trip to witness the amazing spectacle of these beautiful birds. Our flight touched down just before dusk and we were met our Bulgarian guide, Pavel Simeonov, who escorted us by mini bus to Lake Durankulak near the Romanian border, a northward journey of some three and a half hours.
The winter of 2009/10 had been one of the worst in over 100 years throughout the region and the snow, ice and sub zero temperatures had adversely affected where the geese could forage. Pavel explained that many geese had perished, some had been weakened, and some had fallen easy prey to hunters, though most had moved south to milder climes, possibly in Greece or beyond. A couple of thousand had remained loyal to coastal Bulgaria, but their position day to day was unpredictable and hence there was no guarantee we would see the birds at all! Recent reports suggested rather optimistically that several thousand had temporarily moved south to the Bourgas area, but subsequent information indicated that these had started to move back north the very day we flew in.
Our best chance still seemed to be in the Durankulak area, so after reaching our accommodation at the Branta Birding Lodge overlooking Lake Durankulak and dining on a fine Bulgarian meal prepared by our hosts - Tatyana and Pavel, we went to bed eager in anticipation of what dawn would bring. Would there be geese or would there be none?

Day 2: Saturday 6th February saw the group lined up pre-dawn on the terrace at Branta Lodge looking east to the frozen waters of Lake Durankulak and a few hundred metres beyond to the shore line of the Black Sea. Even in the murky darkness and bitter cold, the sound of distant geese could be heard. Much to our pleasure many geese had roosted overnight on the ice covered lake. Then, as a hue of morning light began to appear, the first explosion of wings and sound occurred, sending vast numbers of geese from the roost into the grey sky. Skeins of geese then streamed away inland, mostly larger species, White-fronted and some Grey Lags, but there were also some tighter groups of smaller, faster, more agile geese which flew in the same direction. Several hundred of the many thousands involved passed almost directly overhead and after scanning through the numerous White-fronted Geese, we eventually made out the markings of several small parties of magnificent Red-breasted Geese. As the light brightened even more, a Hen Harrier and a few Common Buzzards flew by, the first of many to be seen. Once the first "explosion" of geese had cleared the roost, still more could be heard, clearly still on the ice and getting ready to leave. Then, after a moment of silence from the birds, there was a second burst of noise as the remainder of the geese rose into the sky in another cloud which then tapered out inland. Several hundred Red-breasted Geese could be made out, and the group noted their distinctive agility, and tightness of the flocks, reminiscent of waders or sandgrouse when compared to the more strung out lines of the White-fronted Geese. The dawn dispersal from the roost site was over and it had been a fantastic start to our weekend birding. A lone adult White-tailed Eagle and some Whooper Swans were the only birds left on the ice covered lake as we retired indoors for breakfast.
After a rest and some welcome warm food, the group set out to locate feeding geese in nearby fields.
Sadly we encountered illegal hunters working outside of the hunting season and we watched helpless as they continued to disturb the birds, no doubt piling extra pressure on birds already weakened by the extreme weather.
We had to search a wide area before eventually finding settled groups. The sight of over 1,500 Red-breasted Geese feeding together with even more White-fronted Geese in a snow covered winter wheat field was a sight we will remember for many years. Nearby a pair of Syrian Woodpeckers feeding in a village garden were watched closely, along with a Hawfinch. We then birded the open countryside of Dobrudja getting excellent views of 5 Rough-legged Buzzard, 5 Long-legged Buzzard and over 120 Common Buzzards for the day, allowing good comparisons to be made. The buzzard feast didn´t end there, as a single Steppe Buzzard was watched near the roadside and later an all white bird (almost full albino white morph of Common Buzzard as it had a dark eyes) ghosted across fields near Kaliakra and could easily have been mistaken for something much rarer if seen more fleetingly. A single male Goshawk and Merlin completed the bird of prey tally for the day. The stubble fields yielded large numbers of Skylarks and a nice group of 45 Calandra Larks.
Pavel had calculated it was too risky for us to stay in the north of the country with more heavy snow forecast and the possibility that even main roads could be blocked. We needed to head south near to our return airport, booking into a nice hotel in Bourgas for two nights. A roadside stop at Goritza in oak woodland provided good views of at least 5 Middle Spotted Woodpeckers and a single Marsh Tit and just before dark a Great Grey Shrike from the bus completed the day´s highlights.

Day 3: Sunday 7th February was rainy and bitterly cold all day, but we pressed on and made the best of it, eventually enjoying another great day´s birding despite all the weather could throw at us.
First port of call was a brief sea watch off the Bourgas sea front where we soon picked up the first Pygmy Cormorants of the trip, and also a fly past Red-crested Pochard, several Black-necked Grebes, a Black-throated Diver as well as 3 stunning Slender-billed Gulls.
We then made short visits to each of the three main lakes around Bourgas all of which were over 90 percent frozen over.
The best birding came at Lake Burgas, where an ice free margin produced over 50 Smew, 4 White-headed Duck, 12 Ferruginous Duck, in excess of 200 Pygmy Cormorant and a lone Dalmatian Pelican sitting close by on the ice.
At Mandra Lake, Bitterns had clearly been affected by the icy conditions and a total of six birds were watched making short flights in and out and the reeds there, as well as a single Great White Egret. Pochard and Tufted Duck were the most numerous water birds (apart from Coot of which there were many on the lakes and the sea) with counts of 4,500 and 2,000 respectively. Several Caspian Gulls loafed on the ice, and we were glad we looked at these because 4 Pallas´s Gulls, including two adults in full summer plumage consorted with them.
At Atanasovsko Lake (Burgas saltpans), an adult Peregrine chased a Teal over the ice and a Cettis Warbler called briefly from the reeds. Several Crested Larks on the lakeside track added to the continental feel.
The day concluded with a quick sea watch at Arkutino and later a walk into the alluvial forest there. The sea produced Sandwich Tern, Red-breasted Mergansers, a single Red-necked Grebe and over 30 Black-necked Grebes whilst the latter produced a close by Grey-headed Woodpecker.

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