Monday 23 July 2018

Romania and Bulgaria, May 2018

This is a trip report about an unashamedly photographic trip to Eastern Europe - Romania and Bulgaria. I'd birded the Black Sea coast of Bulgaria before, about six years, and vowed to go back as it was simply outstanding. For many reasons I had not managed it until now - it was once again so good that I am trying to find an excuse to go back.

  • Thursday evening to Monday evening in late May with my photographic buddy Mick S, thus taking advantage of the Bank Holiday. This gave us three and a half full days, with four mornings and three evenings.
  • Flights from London to Bucharest were about £100 each with British Airways, arriving at midnight on Thursday. Not a particularly great time to start a long drive to the coast, but hey. Return on the evening of Bank Holiday Monday.
  • Car hire a bargain at about £150 for the long weekend for a very nice new Golf. The staff at Avis Bucharest checked it upon return incredibly thoroughly, almost hoping to find something wrong - you have been warned.
  • We had to pay an extra €50 to be able to take the car into Bulgaria. If you don't have the paperwork you will not get through.
  • There is a toll to pay on the E81 after you cross the Danube. This can be paid in cash or subsequently at most petrol stations.
  • We stayed three nights at the Branta Birding Lodge, a few km south of the Bulgarian border. This was €40 per night each including breakfast and dinner, very reasonable indeed. It was perfectly fine if a bit on the tired side, and we gleaned a ton of good (free) information from the owner and bird guide Pavel. Beer was included!
  • I don't remember anything about the food but we made sure to have an icecream every day as it was really hot. Neither country takes euros, and my card refused to work in any cash machines.
  • We were out at dawn and came back very late. The weather was glorious throughout.
  • Day 0: The flight arrived an hour late (1am) but Avis were still waiting for us. We managed two hours drive east towards Constanta before collapsing in a layby for a nap.
  • Day 1: Revived but groggy we drove north-east to Sinoe and birded the lagoons. Then relocated to the Tern colony at Vadu. Afternoon into Bulgaria, birding lake Shabla and finally Cape Kaliakra for Pied Wheatear.
  • Day 2: Dawn start at Lake Durankulak for Paddyfield Warbler, the rest of the day exploring smaller roads and tracks between here and Balgarevo. Evening on the steppe near Balgarevo.
  • Day 3: More of the same
  • Day 4: Back to Romania for another crack at Collared Pratincole at Vadu, then Sinoe, and finally a long drive back to Bucharest for an early evening flight home.
Collared Pratincole

Day 1
Our first stop was Sinoe, a site close to the coast reached from the village down a very long track to the lagoons. Early morning birding here was fantastic with tons of Yellow Wagtails, Bee-eaters, Tawny Pipits and a good selection of waders. We were both a little shell-shocked from an overnight drive and little sleep and were not able to make the most of the opportunities though. There were no Pratincoles though, which is what had prompted this late decision to head north into Romania, so after a little while we tried another spot that seemed likely based on some quick internet research. This proved to be right on the money, a dried lagoon near the village of Vadu a bit further south. This too was a magnificent birding spot with a huge Tern colony on an island, and the Collared Pratincoles present and correct a short distance away. Mick had been here before, but this was a new species for me. The birds were not yet nesting, indeed the colony seemed not to have that many birds at all, but there were enough for a spot of crawling photography. Beware the mosquitoes though, they were rabid and rather offputting.

Mid-morning and we were keen to head to some of the sites that we had actually researched, and retracing our steps took the Constanta Ring-road towards the Bulgarian border. There was a lengthy queue to get across, and the border staff did indeed check the car paperwork that we had paid for. A quick stop at Lake Shabla was unproductive, but the real destination was Cape Kaliakra - famed for Pied Wheatear and if I am honest the whole point of the trip. It did not disappoint - there are loads of breeding pairs around the archaeological ruins, and with so much human traffic they are fairly well accustomed to people. We stayed here for the rest of the afternoon, only leaving to check the gorges a little later - no owls. Of note were hundreds of Rose-coloured Starlings coming in to roost, and a Black-throated Diver off the tip of the Cape was rather strange.

Red-backed Shrike

Pied Wheatear

We headed back to the border and our accomodation at the Branta Birding Lodge. They were rather surprised to see us.....turns out we had stuffed up the booking and were not due to arrive until the following day. Happily they had space and knocked up some food quickly.

Day 2
Out for dawn feeling a lot better than the previous day, and a short drive to Lake Durankulak and their resident Paddyfield Wablers. I'd been here before with Dick, Mo and Bradders in 2012, it is a well-known well stop on any itinerary of Eastern Bulgaria. It was rather breezy, hard work with the 800mm lens where the lens hood acts like a sail, but the birds did not disappoint. We singled out a small clump of reeds slightly detached from the main reed bed which seemed to be a holding a singing bird and for the next 45 minutes had an absolute blast in the wonderful morning light.

Paddyfield Warbler
Paddyfield Warbler

The rest of the day was spent exploring various quiet tracks betweeb Durankulak and Balgaravo, hoping to find cooperative Shrikes to photograph out of the car window. We found several Lesser Grey Shrikes, the best of which were on the track east of Sveti Nikola that leads across the steppe to Rusalka. By far the best habitat was the larger steppe to the west of Balgarevo towards the Mussel Farm. This is criss-crossed by many tracks that were no match for our VW. We spent the whole afternoon here, including the final golden hours. Birds included a small population of Isabelline Wheatears with fledglings, many Calandra Lark, Short-toed Lark, Tawny Pipit. The constant trilling of the Calandras was awesome, photographing them was exceptionally hard however. A Montagu's Harrier flew over, and there was a very pale Long-legged Buzzard as well as Stone Curlew and Hoopoe - and all in the most superb setting of wild-flowers which I would go back for like a shot. In fact I regret not spending more time on the plants.

Lesser Grey Shrike

Tawny Pipit

Isabelline Wheatear

Calandra Lark

Day 3
We spent the morning on tracks close to Vaklino recommended by the ebullient Pavel, our host at the Branta. It too was lovely, with exceptionally pretty stands of wild flowers alongside a track that wound its way across the landscape towards Lake Durankulak. It was here that one of the Red-backed Shrikes finally played ball, allowing some close shots in decent light out of the windows. On the way back an adult White-tailed Eagle showed well. Close to here we staked out a Syrian Woodpecker nest hole and were pleased to get the adult returning with an enormous grub.

Red-backed Shrike

Syrian Woodpecker

We found a large Bee-eater colony inhabiting the sandy cliffs near the campsite at Ezerets but this is most likely an evening site given the north-south nature of the coastline. I attempted some flight shots but my arms gave out with the weight - I need to see a physio about a worrying case of tennis elbow that I am sure my photography is exacerbating. 

The afternoon was spent slowly driving down the Gorun to Tyulenovo road - largely abandoned and in very bad condition but this also meant that there was zero traffic to disturb us. At Tyulenovo we turned south to Kamen Bryag, and along this road we found huge numbers of Rose-coloured Starlings feeding at close range in cherry orchards. The light was grim but we toughed it out. There is also Olive Tree Warbler at a site near here but it looked like rather a slog so we didn't bother. The evening was spent as before on the steppe near Balgarevo. Same birds as before with the addition of a stunning Black-heading Bunting which I jammed a short session with. Most of the time was spent stalking the Isabelline Wheatears though.

Isabelline Wheatear

Isabelline Wheatear

Black-headed Bunting
Calandra Lark

Day 4
Back to Romania for the Collared Pratincoles in early morning light meant a crushing start time, but we made good time and were on site at Vadu for the golden hour. I struggled to get close however, I don't think I got low enough, and the mozzies were worse than terrible. I did manage some close range shots of Kentish Plover though. We then enjoyed the colony of Little Gulls at the nearby lake before returning to Sinoe. This really is a top birding site and I regretted not having a telescope to view the waders - a distant Golden Plover was later identified as a PGP! You are really close to the Danube Delta at this point. On another trip I reckon I'd head up that way - there were birds everywhere, achingly good. With photography done for the day we probably added 20 species in short order to an already decent trip list. And with that we were done - a long drive back to Bucharest to make our evening flight.

Kentish Plover

Little Gull

Little Gull

Gull-billed Tern

Trip List


  1. Beautifully written! That Calandra (the end of Day 3 pic) looks as though it's thinking, "yeah, just you come any closer and I'll tear your arm off..."

    1. The Calandras were really really hard to get close to for whatever reason. Possibly just because they seem to spend so much of their time in the air!

  2. Awesome Shrike images, they are all good but the Shrikes are wonderful.

    1. Cheers Mike - they were a top target but I think both Mick and I wanted more and better, especially of Lesser Grey.

  3. This is a great post with beautiful images ..
    Let’s do it again ....

  4. I have been to these locations in Bulgaria and Romania, but on separate trips. Please can you advise how much the paperwork permitting one to cross the border costs?

    1. It was 50 euros, paid to the Romanian hire car company, who then furnished us with the real car paperwork which was required by the Bulgarian and Romanian border police - and both of them checked it!