Saturday, July 16, 2011

Bulgaria: Krapets to Sofia via the central Balkans

Evening of June 15th through departure:  our final days

Recognizing that the trip was winding down made me want to savor every sighting, bird or otherwise.  In just a few more days I would be back at work with only memories of a great birding trip and wonderful vacation.

The evening of June 15th would be our last night at the Hotel Yansita. When we returned from the day of birding we noticed that the hotel had other guests from Romania who arrived for the weekend and were swimming and relaxing by the pool.  Just before dinner I saw Mladen heading out with his camera and tripod.  Knowing where he was going, I asked to join him.  On both prior pre-breakfast walks we saw an active, singing Barred Warbler. That early in the morning the bright eastern sun made taking photographs nearly impossible.

Mladen used his phone and trusty speaker device to call the Barred Warbler (Sylvia nisoria).  The male responded immediately and flew to leafless branches of a tall tree across a field to continue singing.  Soon the bird flew in closer but proved to be an elusive subject for a photograph by diving into the bushes.

While waiting for a bit of time to elapse before again calling the Barred Warbler, a Red-backed Shrike (Lanius collurio) perched on a nearby branch.  Throughout the trip I had tried many times for photos of the Red-back Shrike always with generally poor results.  This was my best opportunity and one of the two shots I took turned out to be acceptable.

Again Mladen called for the Barred Warbler and this time the female popped up and posed very nicely for just enough time for the photo below.

The largest of the Sylvia warblers, the Barred is a unique appearing bird.  Mladen played the Barred's song again.  The male bird responded and we could see it moving around in the bushes.

Finally, the male Barred Warbler popped up and presented itself just long enough for a couple of shots and the one above was the best.

After dinner several of us were sitting around the pool chatting.  Doug Woods came over to the table to report that an otter was feeding just beyond the breakwater.  We all jumped up, ran into our rooms for cameras, and ran out of the hotel courtyard to the breakwater across the street.  This turned the heads of the Romanians who, I'm sure, wondered where the fire was.  By the time I walked the thin edge of  the breakwater the otter was a bobbing head quite far out and in rapidly dimming light.  All I can say about the otter is that I saw it - sort of.   

Balchik (via Krapets) to Sofia looks like this on google maps.  The next morning it was time to leave.  We were down to our last two days of birding in Bulgaria.  Our first stop of the morning would be a return to Balchik.  We had visited Balchik in the late afternoon on June 13th to look unsuccessfully for the Eagle Owl (Bubo bubo).  The Eagle Owl is such a desirable bird that the second visit was anticipated with mixed expectations - knowledge that we were unsuccessful once, but hopes that a second visit would bring success.

Another bright, sunny morning washed out the sky over the white cliffs where we hoped to find a perched owl.  We had two spotting scopes, Carol's and Mladen's, and the rest of us searched with binoculars.  Even Dencho, the van driver, searched.  He had found the owl for another birding group.

A Long-legged Buzzard (Buteo rufinus) flew over.  Mladen folded his tripod and it seemed like we were going to give up.  Instead, we all loaded up into the van and drove down the road to a different area of the cliffs and began looking again.  After a quick search over the cliffs, Mladen moved purposefully down the road and set up his scope.  He raised his arms in the air. Eagle Owl!  Oh, my goodness, I don't know about anyone else, but I couldn't believe it.

The Eagle Owl is in the right cliff cavity of this attractive rock formation.  In the heavily cropped photo below the bird is seen in the right corner of the cavity.  My photos gives the impression that we did not see the bird well.  Through the spotting scope, however, the bird was well seen. Carol even got quite a good digiscoped photo through her Zeiss scope. At times it was apparent that the bird, a fledged juvenile, was watching us. 

We allowed ourselves a bit of celebratory leisure but eventually, with happy reluctance, we moved on.  The next stop was a meadowed wetland in Botevo to look for Ruddy Shelduck.  This was a completely beautiful location.  It is here that I had my best look at Yellow Wagtail (Motacilla flava feldegg).  The Yellow Wagtail in Bulgaria is the subspecies feldegg, an attractive, dark-headed yellow wagtail.  

Under skies completely washed out by the bright sun, the wetlands water for the Ruddy Shelduck (Tadorna ferruginea) is beyond the waterfall (above).  We never did see the shelduck.  That's not to say it wasn't present.  The pools of water were void of any waterfowl, but there were plenty of hiding places for waterfowl of any species in this wetland. 

I struggled to obtain an acceptable photo of any of the four shrike species we saw.  So it was with the Woodchat Shrike (Lanius senator). I thought this bird was very attractive, perhaps my favorite shrike of the trip.  The only photo opportunity the Woodchat offered yielded the above effort.  

Leaving Boteva, we drove by Mladen's town of Shumen, a town with a population of just under 100,000.  We knew we would see the town where Mladen lived and I thought we would have lunch there.  But we continued to drive for twenty minutes more to an outdoor restaurant on a lake.  Before lunch was served, Mladen, never resting from finding us a good bird, scoped out the lake to make sure we wew not missing anything.  

Above, Yoav Chudnoff, our fearless and funny leader. Here I imagine that he is looking forward to the hours ahead when he can finally rest.  It was clear that the amount of planning and organization that goes into arranging a trip such as ours is enormously challenging to do well.  Yoav did it well, always the calm and masterful negotiator.    

Following lunch we embarked on our second longest travel segment of the trip to take us to the central Balkans.  Much of the trip was on highway roads and we had no birding stops to lessen the travel time. 

In the early evening we were back in the central Balkans and checking into the Hotel Sima, another out-of-season ski resort.  After the hot, sunny weather of the past four days, the cool mountain air was refreshing.      

After check-in we had time before dinner for an exploration up the mountain to see what might be around.  A Chaffinch (Fringilla coelebs) called from the tall, deciduous trees.  We called again for Gray-headed and White-backed woodpeckers with no success.  

Continuing up the hill to the open meadow with few scattered trees and bushes, a dog barked from the location of a bundled red tarp.  There were few birds around and Mladen suggested we call it quits in favor of returning for dinner.  We would be back in the morning.  Dinner at the Hotel Sima restaurant was very nice - with the wonderful cucumber, tomato and Bulgarian cheese salad, which I sadly realized might be my last, followed by an entree of tender pork medallions with a light gravy and potatoes.

This restaurant also had a wine selection which included wines from Bulgaria's wine growing regions, some of which we passed though on our second day of the trip.  With Bob's help we selected a couple of Bulgarian reds and a white.  I found each enjoyable.  Earlier on the trip I had a glass of red wine which I described as thin and harsh. Bob tasted it and nodded in agreement.  "It's oxidized," he said.
He explained that oxidation occurs with sloppy attention to detail in the wine-making process.

At various times on the trip we heard about Bob Traverso's passion for wine-making.  Bob was a native Californian from Italian immigrant grandparents who grew up drinking wine.  First his grandfather watered it down half and half, then a little less water until, as a kid still, he enjoyed wine with meals.  To Bob, the wines we selected for dinner, "were not great, but nice."  It was over the Hotel Sima dinner that he described for us the process of making wine from start to finish.

After dinner while many of us were still sitting around drinking wine, Yoav left to see if he could call out a Tawny Owl.  Many of us didn't even notice he was gone.  Mladen's telephone rang.  Yoav was calling to say that he had a Tawny Owl. We ran out to the dark woods behind the hotel.  On his cell phone, Yoav played the vocalization again, and immediately the Tawny Owl (Strix oluco) flew in to perch on an overhead branch and looked down on us.  A completely cute owl! Although it looks like a mini-Barred Owl (Strix varia) and is of the same family, its responsiveness to hearing its vocalization and its alert behavior reminded me of our Eastern Screech Owl (Meloscops asio).

The next morning we returned to the high meadow for our pre-breakfast walk.  Through the spotting scope we saw our only Yellowhammer (Emberiza citrenella) - see my earlier blog entry titled Buntings - of the trip, as well as male and female Whinchats (Saxicola rubetra).  While the others left to call for, yet again, the Gray-headed Woodpecker, I remained behind for this photo of the male Whinchat.  In retrospect, a good move.  The woodpecker was not seen.

When we left Hotel Sima, we drove along the road above the hotel to bird the high meadow.  Here we saw close up the tame, but free, horses that we had seen from afar the evening before.  Yoav and Dencho spent a good amount of time amongst them with Dencho taking close-up photographs.  The target bird here was Gray Partridge (Perdix perdix) and we were unsuccessful.  This high location in the central Balkans was beautiful and, with the horses and other birds we saw, it was a pleasure to be here. 

In the shadow of a gigantic, and not very attractive, cement monument built by the Russians in 1949 to honor Bulgaria's independence from the Ottoman empire, we took this group photograph.  Only Dencho, our van driver, is missing.  I thought about how Mladen, now age 32, would have been less than ten years old when the Berlin wall came down and just a couple years older when the official break-up of the Soviet Union finally occurred.  I thought of how Yoav, born in Israel and who, over 20 years ago, married a Bulgarian woman who received her Ph.D. in Bulgarian studies from Temple University in Philadelphia.  Now their daughter is a law student at Drexel University.  Considering all that has occurred between then and now, surely this must represent what is good about globalization.  I felt completely privileged to have visited this beautiful eastern European country.  

We had lunch at an attractive outdoor cafe where the young woman owner worked so hard to prepare a meal for our completely unexpected large group.  Watching her come out from the kitchen to check on our meals reminded me, again, of how hard people work.  Thinking back on this we really were not appreciative guests, leaving most of the food on our plates.  She must have wondered what hit her.  She may also have had a few thoughts about Americans.

A couple more stops to look for raptors and then we reached the outskirts of Sofia.  We had not seen the city of Sofia at all and Dencho drove us around the busy city center while Yoav called out buildings of historical, cultural, municipal and religious significance.

We arrived back at the Hotel Edi for our final night.  The Gray Wagtails were still present.  Many of us would depart early the next morning for Sofia Airport to begin our return flights.  That night at dinner we shared good birds, laughs, stories and memories.  

Just as the moon rose over the Black Sea at dusk to end a long day of birding, my Bulgaria trip was over.


Butterflies seen:

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