Saturday, July 9, 2011

Bulgaria: Cape Kaliakra Reserve and nearby

Following a violent storm that ripped through my neighborhood and many other areas of southeastern Michigan on Saturday night, July 2nd, my neighbors and I lost power for the next three days.  When I returned home from work Tuesday, the 5th, we finally had our power restored. Without power I couldn't work on my blog over the weekend as I had planned.

Back to Bulgaria:  June 14th and 15th, 2011. 

Arriving at our seaside hotel in Krapets on the evening of June 13th, the next two days of birding would be day trips.  June 14th turned out to be one of my favorite days of birding because of the places we visited and the birds we saw.

We birded along the road en route to Cape Kaliakra, our first stop for the day.  About halfway between Krapets and Cape Kaliakra we saw some birds eating insects on the road.  One was larger than the others and Mladen called out - with some excitement because it was a good and unexpected bird - "pratincole," as in Collared Pratincole (Glareola pratincola), a bird lumped in with their waders and unlike any bird I know of in North America.  We got satisfying looks at the pratincole on the ground and in flight.  With its unique body structure and the unexpected opportunity to see it, the pratincole was possibly one of my favorite birds for the trip.  

The purpose for visiting Cape Kaliakra was to see Yelkouan Shearwater (Puffinus yelkouan) and Pied Wheatear.  Some did see the shearwater - tiny specks flying low and fast way out over the Black Sea - but this is my least favorite way to see a bird.  Knowing I would never count such a view on my trip list, I gave at best a half-hearted effort to see them. Unfortunately, efforts to see these specks over the water gave way to our group's only overt conflict of the trip.  The tension had probably been building and it was just time for release.  The conflict was later resolved, more or less satisfactorily, with a discussion after lunch.  Our group was made up of a very nice bunch of birders and disagreements were kept relatively low key.

While looking over the Cape Kaliakra cliff edge at nearby breeding plumaged Black-necked Grebes (Podiceps nigricollis), Eared Grebes to us, an interesting discussion occurred about a particular verb tense. Mladen spoke fluent English and transitioned easily between Bulgarian and English.  In the mid-2000's he lived in Maine for three or four summers in a row and spent time with many American birders.  In his job he also leads a lot of British birders around Bulgaria.  While looking at the grebes through the scope several of us commented that "it dove" when the bird ... well, ... dove.  The next person at the scope would need to relocate the grebe.  Somewhat startled, Mladen said, "Ah, you said it, that word 'dove'."  He explained that when leading a group of Brits recently he had used the same phrase, "it dove," whereupon he was quickly pounced upon by the Brits who told him there was no such word as "dove."  All of us American birders agreed that "it dove" is standard lingo when watching diving water birds.  Decide for yourself with this link conjugating the English verb "to dive.

Pied Wheatear (Oenanthe pleschanka) nest on Cape Kaliakra and we saw many.  Being accustomed to people at this tourist location, they were generally easy to approach for a photograph.  Nevertheless, they still seemed to have a distance limit.  To see this handsome bird's large black eye, the image above is best viewed when enlarged.  For the trip we saw four species of wheatear; completely delightful birds that I found myself wishing we also had in North America. 

In an earlier blog entry I included a distant photo of Bee-eaters, but can there ever really be too many photos of the bejeweled Bee-eater?  The Bee-eaters at Cape Kaliakra were active along the cliffs below us so not as easily spooked, and like the Pied-Wheatear were more accustomed to people.  

Leaving Cape Kaliatra we visited some nearby fields along quite busy roads with travelers driving to and from the Cape.  By this time on the trip we had grown unaccustomed to much traffic on roads where we were birding. The overall absence of traffic in places we visited was something that I found wonderful about Bulgaria. Our target bird was an aerial specialist, the Calandra Lark (Melanocorypha calandra), and after everyone saw the bird well through the scope, I was able to sneak closer for the photo above.  Later in the afternoon we saw Short-toed Lark (Calandrella brachydactyla) on the steppes.  For the trip we saw five species of larks, another bird it would be very nice to have in North America.

Leaving the Calandra Lark and again driving on the relatively busy road leading to and from the tourist location of Cape Kaliatra I noticed a brown lump at the edge of the road.  Looked about the right size, right color too. Mladen also saw it.  We both called out "hedgehog!" Hedgehogs are slow-moving, nocturnal animals and we saw many dead along the road during our travels.  Seeing this hedgehog on the move during the daytime was a complete surprise.  But a surprise with grave consequences for this particular hedgehog.  Even as Dencho stopped the van three cars were approaching the hedgehog from the opposite direction.  Mladen quickly got out of the van, crossed the road and nudged the hedgehog back into the bushes.  He stomped his feet a few times so the hedgehog might think again before leaving the safety of the bushes. Just as he got the hedgehog off the road Mladen stood at the edge and allowed the three cars to pass before he returned to the van. All of this happened within seconds and, unfortunately, we had no chance to take photos.  But, had the timing of our arrival been delayed by even a minute we would have been seeing yet another dead hedgehog on the road.  We gladly preferred our photo-free experience.  

After our Calandra Lark and hedgehog moments we had lunch at a very nice roadside restaurant where we shared the outdoor patio with German diners who were workers on the nearby windfarms building and erecting windmills.

I asked Mladen why Bulgarians did not do this work.  He didn't know why but went on to explain that the wind farms in this region were illegal, having been built on environmentally sensitive land without completing the necessary environmental impact studies.  The local mayor was corrupt and had somehow got away with the contract.  I forget the details now but the corrupt mayor's palm is well-greased.  I guessed then that the company erecting the windmills was a German company and employed its own workers for the job.  Now that the windmills are erected there is no chance they would be taken down.  I thought of how we in the United States face similar environmental threats when politicians and corporations, often flying low under the radar, attempt to push through lucrative, but potentially damaging projects for the environment.

The sign above had nothing to do with our lunch restaurant, but I saw it in one of the small towns we passed through near Cape Kaliakra. This sunny area in northeast Bulgaria on the Black Sea is an affordable and attractive location for British retirees tired of their damp, gray English weather.  I imagine that this sneckbar sign in English was appealing to the area's new residents.

After lunch we visited an area with sandstone cliffs for our second unsuccessful attempt to find an Eagle Owl (Bubo bubo).  But we saw so many other great things including butterflies, dragonflies and a hunting European Honey-buzzard (Pernis apivorus)our only honey-buzzard of the trip.    

Leaving the sandstone cliffs, we saw this Hoopoe (Upupa epops) on a wire over the road.  At first I took backlit photos of the bird from the van window.  Then we turned the corner and I saw I could place the ultility pole behind the bird for an unsilhouetted view.  Using the van as a blind I took several shots from the open window.  Prior to even departing for the trip Hoopoe was one of the three birds I most wanted to see and photograph.  While we saw and heard Hoopoes several times, the look was always fleeting or from afar, and only once briefly with the crown feathers raised.  I began to think that I would not get a photo so when this opportunity occurred I was thrilled.  Such a unique bird!  As a bonus this bird was also vocalizing.

Leaving the Hoopoe we drove to the steppes, large areas of rocky meadow with wildflowers for another highly sought after bird.  Almost immediately Bob Traverso spotted a close Stone Curlew (Burhinus oedicnemus).  We froze while Mladen set up the scope. When our careful movements failed to frighten the bird we took the opportunity to load up in the van to move closer.  Mladen had never photographed a Stone Curlew so closely.  I had trouble finding the Stone Curlew in my viewfinder at the closer range yet I still managed to get a couple of decent photos.  The one below may be from the more distant range. That evening when Mladen downloaded his Stone Curlew photos to his laptop he gave me an important pointer on evaluating the appearance of a bird in a photograph.  Did the bird appear natural or did it appear frightened?  So subtle and something that I had never before considered.  Mladen had a couple of photos, clear and sharp, where the Stone Curlew seemed frightened and appeared to be running away. These were quickly deleted.    

Official birding for this day ended shortly after seeing the Stone Curlew and Lesser Short-toed Lark, but we continued to bird from the van and saw another Calandra Lark close to the road and further on a Little Owl was perched in plain view at the edge of the road.

After our morning walk followed by breakfast, we started out on Thursday, July 15th for our target bird, the Paddyfield Warbler (Acrocephalus agricola), at Lake Durankulak.  It was windy that morning and Mladen worried that we might not be able to see it.  But he heard a male singing almost as soon as we stepped off the van near a beach resort on the Black Sea where, with the exception of one fisherman, we were the only visitors.  This bird was important here because its range is so limited in Bulgaria.

This location, Lake Durankulak, was also the only place we saw Ferruginous Duck (Aythya nyroca).

We drove to another area of the lake to look for Bearded Reedling (Panurus biarmicus) and a handsome male immediately flew in upon hearing Mladen's recording.  A bird with such a unique appearance elicited oohs and aahs.  We heard, but did not see, Savi's Warbler (Locustella luscinioides), another target bird in this habitat.  So many old-world warblers look so much alike.

Throughout the trip Mladen used recordings to call (or, in some cases, not call) birds in.  To do this he used a tiny set of speakers that attached to his Nokia cell phone on which he had downloaded bird vocalizations.  I had never seen such a compact and field-friendly sound device.  We have iphones, ipods, blackberries, etc. all with the same capability, but it was the speaker device which really made the kit.    

Knowing that I would only bring one pair of shoes for the whole trip, I gave a lot of thought to which I would choose and finally decided on a lightweight pair of Adidas sneakers.  They were perfect and I was pleased with my selection; that is, until we birded in the meadowed habitat of Lake Durankulak and Lake Shabla.  The grass we walked through here had barbed stickers that grabbed at my mesh shoes and cotton socks.  Some of the barbs made it to my feet and pricked my skin with each step. Those who had a heavier hiking boot style of shoe did much better in this habitat.  In the van I removed my shoes and socks to pluck off the stickers that had managed to get everywhere.

Walking around the village after lunch I found another snack bar sign in both languages.  Seeing the Bulgarian words for snack bar made clearer where the translation sneckbar had come from on the first sign.

After lunch some stayed behind at the hotel to enjoy the nice pool and the rest of us went on to Shabla Lake.  I felt right at home when looking at this sign because some marksman had thought it would be a good idea to shoot it up a bit.  

A Roller was on an overhead wire and I crept closer and closer for the photograph above.  The thing is, as pretty as it is perched the Roller is truly spectacular in flight.  Too late I got the idea to try to video its flight. I thought of it only after I watched this bird take off and fly away from me unable to take my eyes off of it and knowing there was no way to switch my camera mode quickly enough.  After this I never got another chance.  

Months prior to departing for this trip, I practiced with the video mode of my camera so I would be able to use this feature with adequate confidence.  Thinking back on it now, I should have taken more video during the trip.  In the end I used it only twice - fortunately, I thought to use it early on for the Wallcreeper and many days later for the singing Corn Bunting.  Both of these videos are included in prior blog entries.   

We had seen distant Tawny Pipits (Anthus campestris) in a couple of earlier locations, but in the meadows near Lake Shabla we got to see this bird very well. 

As is seen in the photographs, the two days birding around Krapets, Cape Kaliakra, and the two lakes were hot and sunny.  Around mid-afternoon on the 15th it was clear to me that I was overdosing on sun.  I dropped out of a walk around Lake Shabla in favor of finding a shady spot to bird.  Fortunately, and thanks to SPF 50, I did not get too sunburned.  For the trip our weather was perfect.  Our only rain occurred in the late afternoon on the 14th when the heavens opened up twice for a ten minute downpour each time.  Occasionally, especially in the mountains, it was cool and overcast but we always enjoyed comfortable and good birding weather.

Още, за да се!

Butterflies and other critters seen:

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