Saturday, 26 November 2022

Bulgaria in October - Logistics and itinerary


Bulgaria, 4th-9th October 2022

This was a somewhat speculative trip to see what Eastern Europe in the late autumn was like. And on reflection, it is now rather obvious why everyone goes in the spring! I've previously enjoyed good results with the camera in Bulgaria, and as such I had this billed primarily as a photography trip. Mistake. As far as photography trips go this was up there with my least successful, a resounding failure! Five days of searching in vain for cooperative subjects saw us return home with virtually nothing to show for it. And as I had left the scope behind the backup plan of birding was also less successful than it might have been.

Plan A had been to stay in the western half of the country and bird the mountains. This was so dire, with such birdlife as there was flushing at absurd distances, that we gave up and travelled to the Black Sea coast. The area around Burgas had far more birds, but everything was equally wary, particularly waterbirds - there must be a lot of shooting. We recorded 131 species which I suppose is not a bad trip list, but on the photography front some decent images of Stonechat and Water Rail don't really count for a great deal vs the time spent there. You cannot win them all I suppose, and I have found out the hard way why there are no October trip reports from Bulgaria!

Logistics
  • A five day trip in early October departing London on Tuesday morning and returning on Sunday afternoon.
  • Flights: from Heathrow to Sofia on British Airways.
  • Covid logistics: nothing whatsoever.
  • Car Hire: A cheap Opel from Avis.
  • Driving: Other than the main road across the country, the roads are not in wonderful condition, with potholes so deep you might not get the car out again, particularly in the mountains.
  • Accommodation: All booked whilst we were there, and a good thing too given our initial plan fell to pieces. Very cheap, as are most things in the country, but generally of a middling standard only.
  • Food: Very straightforward. Cheap and good.
  • Literature: The Collins and eBird. 



Itinerary

Day 1: Arrived in Sofia early afternoon and headed south into the mountains. Overnight at Malyovitsa.
Day 2: Morning walk up a track in the hope of finding alpine birds. Hah! Some more unfulfulling birding around Plovdiv in the afternoon convinced us to head as far east as we could go. Overnight at Kraimorie, just south of Burgas.
Day 3: All day birding Burgas and Pomorie, including a vizmig session at Atanasovsko. Overnight Pomorie.
Day 4: All day birding Burgas and Pomorie. Overnight Pomorie.
Day 5: Morning around Burgas and then a slow drive west back to Sofia. Overnight Sofia.
Day 6: Vitosha mountain in the morning, flight home mid-afternoon.

Friday, 28 October 2022

En Provence


I've just had a few days en Provence with the family. The weather has been glorious, the rosé chilled and plentiful, the seafood wonderul. With everything that is going on in the UK you start to question why exactly it is that you live in London. The cold and the damp, the toxic atmosphere, the battle to find decent food, the loooming central heating decision. Here life is simple and straightforward. I need to become one of these digital nomads that can work from anywhere.

We are in Cassis, on the Med near Toulon. A quiet but somewhat chi chi fishing port for the well-heeled of Aix and Marseille. I love Provence, I spent some of my childhood here, the beach a regular weekly trip from our home in the hills above Aix. Fond memories, and it is good to be back with my own kids.




We have not done much, it is all tooo easy to get into the rythym of the south. Morning strolls and coffee. Wandering around the arket. Relaxed lunches. Visits to vineyards. A hike into the Calanques to swim in the crystal clear waters. The smell of pine and salt. Did I mention rosé? Firecrest seems to be the commonest bird by far but I have been too soporific to actively seek them out, A Black Redstart lives on the roof of our flat which has a view of the harbour. I could get used to this, but alas...




Wednesday, 26 October 2022

Turkey - Day 5

Day five and Mick is restored, 24 hours asleep has done him the world of good and we can continue birding. Riva is on the Black Sea coast, and we had chosen to stay there as of all the spots around Istanbul it seemed to offer the best chance to increase the list. This was very much a birding trip, rather than concentrating on photography. The beach wasn't up to much, fishermen covered every spot of sand even first thing in the morning, but the reed bed along the river was a lot better with Kingfishers, Cetti's Warblers, Water Rails and so on, whilst Marsh Harrier and Hobby hunted above. Bird of the morning spot went to a Short-toed Eagle cruising overhead (little did we know) and in the scrub above the road there were Sardinian Warblers, Blackcap, and Long-tailed Tits.



Our main destination was the watchpoint of Toygartepe - there are a number of spots along the Bosphorus that come into their own during migration season. In the spring you position yourself on the western side and look east, and in the autumn it is the other way around. Toygartepe is the northern watchpoint, with panoramic views of the final bridge all the way around to the city of Istanbul to the south. We found the right spot at the second attempt - my pin had been set on the right hill but at slightly the wrong location, just underneath where we wanted to be. A friendly café owner put us right and we were soon in place with the scope pointing west. It was breezy, and there were no other birders - this was disappointing as we felt we would need help!

For the first 45 minutes nothing happened. We wondered if we had completely misread the forecast, and that this was the reason for there being nobody here. Were there huge crowds at the southerly watchpoint? Or were all the vizmiggers taking a day off knowing that the conditions were suboptimal? Three days previously there had been thousands of birds streaming through, today there were none.





We need not have worried. A Short-toed Eagle appeared mid-morning, followed by what we thought was likely a Lesser-Spotted Eagle. As birders who rarely see large birds of prey this was sensational, and we congratulated ourselves on having made a great decision to come here. Then the floodgates opened and for the next two hours we simply did not know where to look. Birds were arriving from Thrace on a broad front, passing north and south of us. Those to the north would circle slowly upwards in an immense spiral as they hit the bridge area, and once enough height had been gained to see the way forward, would peel off in a line and bomb across into Asia. South of us appeard to be more of a steady stream, but was equally impressive. Relatively few birds passed directly overhead, and for a while we wondered if we ought to move to the north for a better position, but with local knowledge lacking we stayed put. Toygartepe must be the best spot for a reason. Looking back it is a bit of a blur, birds were impossible to count with any accuracy, especially Lesser-spotted Eagle which came over in such numbers that we got to grips with them fairly easily, but most of the time we simply did not know where to concentrate. The following is taken from my eBird list that I tried to maintain as we scanned.

Alpine Swift = X

Palliid Swift = 1

Black Stork = 101

Griffon Vulture = 1

Short-toed Eagle = 24

Lesser Spotted Eagle = 1060

Booted Eagle = 4

Levant Sparrowhawk = 1

Eurasian Sparrowhawk = 5 + 15 unassigned

Common Buzzard = 7

Long-legged Buzzard = 1

Kestrel = 1

Hobby = 3

As I said, this may have been a sub-par day with no other observers, but for us it was mind-blowing. Mostly I see zero Eagles per year. The single ST Eagle in the morning over Riva had felt monster, but the count from Toygartepe was, well, I don't really know. There so many large raptors that it would be easy to become blazé about it I suppose. What I do know is that I want to do something like this again - Gibraltar, Batumi, perhaps a return visit to Falsterbo.



After a late lunch we drove to a final birding spot over the bridge, an annoyingly long detour that took us south of the bridge in a huge loop and then back underneath it to the coast at Rumelifeneri. We finally added Yelkouan Shearwater here, bobbing about on the sea like winter auks. A nearby quarry had a Little Owl, and evidence of a Bee-eater colony. We fought our way back to the motorway via the same enormous loop we had done earlier, fought being the operative word - with hindsight I would not recommend this detour, on the map it looks like being no distance at all but it takes ages.


And so that was the trip. The full trip list with locations and species can be found here, but in sumamary we drove halfway across Turkey, around 2500km, during which we saw 166 species. I showed the route at the start of the first blog post, but you can also chart it via eBird, and it looks like this. I am rather obsessed by eBird, and increasingly by this map function where you need to record a bird in the county or state in order to "fill it in". Detours have been known...






Sunday, 23 October 2022

Turkey - Day 4

We had no specific desitination in mind today - just a need to get west. The flight home was the next day and we were at least eight hours away. Still missing Radde's Accentor, we decided to spend the morning in the mountains and slowly pick our way back towards Sultansazligi where we hoped to find the elusive water. 

Our first stop was back at Cimbar Canyon, and if anything it was birdier than the previous day. Warblers were everywhere, and some smart Rock Buntings that we had missed before were at near the road. Western Rock Nuthatch seemed to have increased as well, with at least ten in the first 500m. It soon became apparent however that Mick was not feeling very well and needed to have a lie down - not great with potentially 800km to drive. We cut birding short and got on the road with me driving. We took it slow out of the mountains, with frequent stops to drink water and survey the scenery which was magnificent. In this way the list continued to tick over, with Common Redstart in a small village, Cuckoo at a petrol station, Hobby at a layby and so on. 

On the northern side of Sultansazligi/Yay Golu the water proved non-existent, but picking our way through an agricultural area added a decent selection of migrants and our first Lesser Grey Shrike which was unfortunately miles away. Rather than water there was just a huge dry bed - there probably had been water once, but this had been a long time ago. From Sindelhoyuk the satnav took us west along a road that was highly unsuitable for our car and for a moment I thought we were going to get stuck or grounded, but eventually we made it out the other side and onto a proper road near Cayirozu. A lucky stop near here added Golden Eagle, and a short way further a pair of Roller on the telegraph wires.



It was somewhere around here that we crashed the car. A car on the hard shoulder suddenly pulled out just as we about to go past it, aiming for a turning on the opposite side of the road, and there was no avoiding it. I braked and steered away as best as I could but we still ended up colliding. The other car had most of the damage - rightly so, a ridiculous bit of driving, but nonetheless we had obvious collision damage on the front wing. We pulled over and a very apologetic Spanish lady got out of the other car. Everyone was OK, and both cars were still perfectly driveable so no real harm done other than potential hassle giving the car back. We had full insurance so were not too worried, but she may have been stung. Which is what then happened to me! As we were exchanging details I got stung by a wasp on my index finger. The lady rushed to her car and got me some anti-venomy stuff to dab on it. Lucky we met you I quipped, but I'm not sure she got it. Anyway, I have no idea what we you are supposed to do if you are in a crash in a Turkey, especially if you are in the middle of nowhere like we were, but we took her rental details, took a few photos and carried on. Here's one of them.



I was still pouring water down Mick, but he was pretty dead and at one point I had to pull over quickly as he nearly threw up. Spotted Flycatcher and Red-backed Shrike wherever this was! When we eventually hit the motorway he fell asleep and as he seemed comfortable I just went for it. The road is excellent and I passed the time by birding out of the window - various Raptors and Larks, the odd Hooded Crow.

By the time we arrived at Yenicaga Golu, 500km away, it was 5.30pm. Mick was still alive, possibly recovering, and we were able to spend the hour before dusk birding. It was actually a pretty good site, with Serin and Kingfisher new birds amongst a decent list. Istabul was now less than three hours away, and so after some food locally we decided to go for it - destination Riva on the Black Sea coast - still on the Anatolian side, but very close to Thrace. We reached this without incident - I had driven 900km, which had taken nearly 10 hours. The next day had almost no driving, and with the flight at 8pm we could take it easy.

Saturday, 22 October 2022

Turkey - Day 3


We had arrange to meet Recep just after 6am at the jeep. Although we might have tried it with a regular car, I felt it was best to go with a proper option despite the cost. The track we ended up on proved my point - we might have got a portion of the way, but the 4x4 was the realistic option and it meant we got someone who knew where they were going. On the way up he said that the main time people come is in May, and in fact that he could not remember ever taking people up in September - this did not bode well!! It turns out that there is a good reason for this - in May the Caspian Snowcock are very vocal, and you can track them down by their song and calls. In late September however.....

As we surveyed the rockface, cliffs and peaks from the silent plateau Recep confessed he was worried. He could not understand why the Snowcock were not singing and he thought that they most probably were not on the mountain any longer. As the birds live here year round I felt that the birds were here - somewhere - and that the reason that they were not singing was that we had stupidly come after the breeding season.... There were plenty of other birds though,and my life list increased by three in quick succession - Western Rock Nutchatch, White-winged Snowfinch and Red-fronted Serin, the latter two in quite large flocks on the plateau, mixed in with Shore Lark as you might expect for the habitat. Chough called overhead, and a Blue Rock Thrush was in the area. All in all rather splendid. 


Shore Lark


I continued to scan the high peaks with both scope and binoculars in the hope that I might pick up movement. On one of these regular left to right scans I spied a bird on the skyline which quickly turned into two. Given the distance they seemed quite big... I quickly got the scope on them. Lady luck was with us - Caspian Snowcock! Recep could not believe it. I could, I am a jammy bugger! Played for and got. There were four bird in total, slowly picking their way down the slope, and as soon as they dropped from the ridge they became more or less invisible, scanning would not have picked them up. It might not have been the haunting experience you get in the spring, but the elation was perhaps greater in the circumstances.

Caspian Snowcock


After a celebratory coffee we descended back to the valley to bird a different area, Cimbar Canyon, probably the most-visited site. On the track down a black and white Wheatear bounded ahead of us - we expected Black-eared but this was much better - a male Finsch's Wheatear. Somehow this had not been on my radar, but really it should have been. I've only ever seen this species in Cyprus before on a winter trip specifically targeting it, whereas this is where they live for the rest of the year. We saw several more on the way back down - the morning was getting better and better.

Finsch's Wheatear


You can park off the road at the start of Cimbar Canyon and then proceed on foot. The lower area was stuffed with birds - loads of Black Redstart and Western Rock Nuthatch, another two Blue Rock Thrush, an Eastern Black-eared Wheatear, and our first Lesser Whitethroats and Balckcaps of the trip. Crag Martins were overheard. The target bird here was Radde's Accentor, but perhaps we did not ascend high enough and we would have been better searching around the plateau where we had just come from. 

Cimbar Canyon


The day was still relatively early, we had done amazingly in the mountains all things considered. With birding coursing through our veins we hatched a plan to drive south into another biosphere and see a pile of different birds. The coast was a little over two hours ago, and checking a few likely eBird hotspots suggested gems like Pied Kingfisher, Spur-winged Lapwing and Collared Pratincole. If we got going we could arrive shortly after lunch. Why not? Thanking Recep we said we would play it by ear and may or may not come back that evening. We had paid for the room anyway so we had an option on a stop off point two hours closer to Istanbul if we so chose. 

We were aiming for Tuzla Golu, a lagoon right next to the sea south of Adana and east of Mersin. The first hour was a gradual descent, and once back into the lowlands we started to see different birds. A random bridge over a canal had a large flock of Cattle Egret, our first Pied Kingfisher, three Caspian Terns and a pair of Spur-winged Lapwings. These very nearly justified the drive by themselves, but the lagoon was another level.

There were Red-rumped Swallow in the village, and as the houses end there is a causeway across the middle of the lagoon. The best birding is on the edges of this, as well to the east which is shallower and has more vegetation. A stunning nine Pied Kingfishers were sat on the wires here, and there were stacks of waders wherever you looked. Snipe, Black-tailed Godwit, Dunlin, Temminck's Stint, Little Stint, Kentish Plover, Ringed Plover, Grey Plover, Knot, Greenshank, Redshank, Spotted Redshank, Green Sandpiper, Wood Sandpiper, Black-winged Stilt, five Spur-winged Lapwings and two Collared Pratincoles.

A large flock of 100+ Slender-billed Gulls were back and forth over the causeway, with Sandwich and Gull-billed Terns, there were a minimum of 50 Grey Heron and 25 Great White Egret, over a hundred Flamingo, you get the picture. I left Mick with the big camera and had a wander in the small dune system south of the lagoon. In the vegetation here I found Laughing Dove, Zitting Cisticola, Eastern Olivaceous Warbler, and several Red-backed Shrikes. A lone Garganey was in the reeds and departed swiftly to the middle when it heard me. All in all it was a terrific spot, and as the sun went down over the Med we felt lucky to be alive.

Red-backed Shrike

We were not done yet though - after dinner and a long drive back into the mountains we still felt chirpy enough to try for Scops Owl in Cimbar Canyon. We had no idea if there might be one there or not, but why not give it a go? There wasn't. It had been scared off by a hugely vocal Eagle Owl! What a day!

Tuesday, 18 October 2022

Turkey - Day 2

We were up early to try and get to our first birding destination of Mogan Golu whilst the light was still good. A farce trying to get coffee out of the hotel, who insisted on writing out some piece of useless paperwork that I was supposed to sign for. Sensing actual coffee was some distance behind the admin associated with coffee we left and got one on the road south of Ankara. Unfortunately it was utter filth and we threw most of it away, but I did get to scope Mogan Golu. Like the Sea of Marmara this also had a million Coot on it, hundreds of Great Crested Grebe, and our first Sand Martins



Our actual destination was a little further, Mogan Golu Sel Kapani, and we spent a good part of the morning here. This is a wetland habitat, a lake surrounded by shallow pools, reeds and fields. It was excellent, birds everywhere you looked. Coots got an "X" here, there were too many to even estimate, but we were also able to pick out hundreds of Ruddy Shelduck, some Spoonbill, both Storks, Purple Heron and a Little Bittern. The margins had good numbers of Wood Sandpiper, Little Stint, and Snipe and Ruff were common too. The pinging of Bearded Tits was almost overwhelming. A single White-headed Duck was on a close pool. The fields around the edge had Red-backed Shrike, Tawny Pipit, Isabelline and Northern Wheatears, Whinchat and Bee-eater, and overall we recorded over 60 species. As with many places we would go there were a lot of fishermen, but also birders doing what we were doing, driving slowly around the edges which was a good tactic to avoid flushing things. The tracks seemed pretty solid, but we visited during a dry period. I would think the dam  end would always be passable, even in a normal car such as ours. A scope is a real necessity at this site - whilst you can get great views at the margins, substantial numbers of birds are on the lake itself, and you won't to be able to identify distant ducks and waders without one. 



Our next stop was Kulu Duden Golu, another wetland and saltpan site about an hour further south. It was on our itinerary as a good place to look for Larks, in particular the central Turkish race of Turkestan Short-toed Lark A h aharonii. We started at the northern end, access from the east side of Kulu. We were soon in an arid agricultural landscape with occasional running streams of water - one of these on the outskirts of town held both Temminck's Stint and Spotted Redshank. Driving a little further, we became aware of torrents of birdsong. There were Larks everywhere, field you thought were empty had dozens of birds hidden in furrows. Picking out the Short-toed Larks was far harder than we had thought, and was really only possible in flight when you could separate the smaller birds from the Greater Short-toed Larks and see the wing patterns. I think we got one look at a markedly grey bird on the deck, but it soon moved out of sight. At every field we stopped at a huge cloud of Larks would vocally ascend, move a certain distance, and then as one vanish as they touched down. 



The 'water' was some distance away to our south, but it seemed as if a track along the eastern edge might give us a view. In short, it didn't, and whilst we saw tons of Wheatears and yet more Larks, the saltpan was exactly that, salt. No life. It took until we were driving away from the site on a block-paved road heading back north to Kulu that we saw some water. We managed to find a track that got us about halfway and walked the rest, but this did mean we spooked some of the closer Ruddy Shelduck to distance they felt comfortable with, whereas the Flamingos didn't move. We estimated around 2000 Ruddy Shelduck and 1200 Flamingo. Mixed in with the latter were 28 Common Crane, and what we assumed were Armenian Gull were simply too far away to rule out Yellow-legged. Once again there was a decent selection of waders on the near margins, including our first Kentish Plover.

It was now mid-afternoon, and we had one more site on our agenda before the mountains, the hotspot of Sultansazligi MP, still three hours away to our south-east. We didn't arrive until 6pm, and were dismayed to be immediately collared by a scruffy "guide" who pointed at an information board that said that all viewing of birds had to be done in the company of an official guide. An official paid guide! This is where eBird research falls down, the lists look great but the situation on the ground is far more complicated. Furthermore, the birds were half an hour away, and we would have to drive. As we only had an hour before dusk we declined this offer and instead paid a nominal sum to visit the bird museum and observation tower. From the top of this we could survey the area but it was immediately apparent that the water was miles away. All we could see was a vast reed bed stretching into the middle distance. Looking at the map it suggested there was some water right in the middle, but our hoped for Ibis and Waders were clearly off the menu. Instead we enjoyed the spectacle of innumerable Hirudines circling against the backdrop of Mt Erciyes (3917m, so not insignificant!) catching the last sunlight of the day, and murmurations of Starlings numbering thousands of birds. Various other species were also heading to roost, including many Egrets, 50+ Bee-eater, a Purple Heron and 20+ Marsh Harriers. A Little Owl hunted from the top of the tower as dusk fell.



Our accomodation for the night was an hour south, up and into the Aladaglar NP (Crimson Mountains) and the wider range known as the Anti-Taurus mountains. We arrived in Cukurbag right on time to be greeted by our host, Recep, who would be driving us further up the next morning. We agreed on a time, and then I taught Mick how to cook pasta in the communal kitchen where we also met some German ecologists who were cycling from Frankfurt to Singapore. Now that is travelling!

Monday, 17 October 2022

Turkey - Day 1

After being turned away from the hotel I had booked (they had sold the room to someone else...) we eventually found a place back near the airport - in fact west of the airport, so not ideal for our early start heading east. The plan had been to spend the morning doing vizmigging over the Strait, but this and a realisation that the distance that we needed to cover was immense meant we changed plans and got on the road after a quick spot of pre-breakfast birding. The Quail we had heard before falling asleep was still going for it, and we got the list off to a pleasant start with just under 20 species seen in a short walk, including buzzing Tree Pipits, a Syrian Woodpecker, a Spotted Flycatcher and a Little Owl. Crazy numbers of Alpine Swifts over the motorway on the western side of the Yavuz Sultan Selim bridge - impossible to count on the move but thousands.

Izmit


First stop Izmit, on the eastern edge of the Sea of Marmara. We arrived mid morning and started birding immediately, albeit that it is suprisingly difficult to get to the most interesting bits of the shoreline. Keep trying is my suggestion - we entered via a restaurant, and you can drive to reasonably close to the canal at the northern end. There were birds everywhere, and we had our first views of Greater Flamingos and Pygmy Cormorants - we were definitely a long way from home! Coots and Black-headed Gulls dominated (perhaps not so far after all...), and a good selection of waders fed on the mud - Grey Plover, Dunlin, Common Sandpiper, Redshank and Spotted Redshank, Ruff and Ringed Plover. We picked out a handful of Black-necked Grebe offshore amongst the more numerous Great Crested and Little Grebes, and a Marsh Harrier patrolled the reeds. We racked up about 30 species all told here, a good taster of things to come and an easy place to break up the journey about an hour and half from the airport.

We continued east for another two hours towards the town of Bolu, beyond which the landscape became more agricultural. I was aiming for the village of Dortdivan, picked from obscurity by virtue of a decent eBird list earlier in the month that had been heavy on raptors. There is no particular spot to go birding, we just parked the car by the side of the road in a series of good-looking spots. Locals were quite curious, and I showed some of them birds through my scope. The list here included many Long-legged Buzzard in the fields, ofter just sat on the ground, an Imperial Eagle, a Black Stork, Bee-eaters, Red-backed ShrikeYellow Wagtails and lots of obviously migrant Willow Warblers, plus a good selection of chats - resident Black Redstarts, and migrant Whinchat and Wheatear. We spent a lot of time here, probably more than we should have - a common feature of birding travel.

From here we headed north through Gerede and into the mountains. The target was Kruper's Nuthatch, the first lifer on the list. Research had suggested they were common, but we couldn't find one, and in fact it was slim pickings all round. A Crag Martin was a bonus about half way up, but the pines held only Goldcrest and Coal Tit. A quick check of eBird suggested another site half an hour south east (ie the right direction), Camkorus Tabiat Parki, which we reached by 6pm. Bird activity was low, but on the point of leaving I heard the Nutchatch and scrambled up a slope and into the trees to get a view, guided by ear. And sure enough, way up at the top of a pine a lone bird was mooching about. My view lasted about 10 seconds, if that, before the bird flitted further away. By the skin of my teeth - I was glad to have found it as the bird is only in certain habitats and I didn't want to have to devote another site to it on the way back.

Looking south towards Gerede


It was now getting dark, and with no accomodation booked we got back on the main road heading south to Ankara. Our first birding site tomorrow was under two hours away, so we figured it made little difference how far we got this evening and found a hotel about half way - a immense ugly edifice called the Connect Thermal Hotel. But it was reasonably priced and came with dinner and a Barn Owl in the garden, so pretty perfect for our purposes. I don't think we managed to take single photograph of a bird all day, but we had covered 450km, notched up 78 species under blue skies, and most importantly were over halfway towards Aladaglar NP where we had accomodation booked for the following night.