Monday, 9 May 2016

The Hortobagy

Leaving Durankulak at 06:30 the wind was still blowing and it was raining hard. I drove up to the Romanian border which was only a 10 minute drive, there was no one at the Bulgarian side so I drove straight through. It didn't look like there was anyone at the Romanian side either, I drew to a stop by the border post and was just moving off again when there was a bang on the side of the van, there was someone here. The checks were brief however and I was soon on my way again. I drove around Bucharest then through Pitesti, joining the A1 at Sibiu there was a fantastic motorway here and I was making good progress. I had decided to cross the border in to Hungary near Oradea my route home would then take me close to Hortabagy where I planned to stop for a day. Joining the E79 north of Deva the road deteriorated rapidly and it looked like the whole length up to Oradea was being reconstructed, all at once, this mean't that the next 170Km were completed on a rough track with large holes everywhere. I thought it would take a couple of hours but it was closer to 5 hours before I finally made the crossing in to Hungary, stopping overnight in a motel near the border.
The following morning the sun was shinning as I drove for about an hour in to the small village of Hortobagy to get my permit to visit the bird watching sites in the area. I hadn't bothered with local currency at all in Bulgaria or Romania, paying for everything with a credit card and in Bulgaria they had been happy for payment in Euros. The visitor centre required Hungarian Forints for their payment so I had to withdraw cash, I had no idea what the exchange rate was and thought I was getting the equivalent of about £50 but withdrew over £300 by mistake, anyway I had plenty to pay for my permit which was 3000 Forints for a week pass which was about £7.50.
Hortobagy is an area of Hungarian Steppe grassland, which floods in the winter, with various fish ponds. In winter it is good for geese, wildfowl and birds of prey and in summer it is home to a large population of Red-footed Falcons and a range of steppe and marshland birds, it's also a reliable place to see Saker Falcon.
I headed for a small wooded area which my permit gave me access to and which held a large rookery and many pairs of Red-footed Falcon. I would guess there were at least 30 pairs but there could have been many more. Standing by the wood all you can hear is the cawing of the Rooks and the high pitched shrieks of Red-footed Falcons. If you want to see Red-footed Falcon, and get fantastic views this is the place to go. 
Red-footed Falcons
I took a lot of photos and could have stayed there all day but I also wanted to look at the fish farm which was about 15km away. The permit gave me access to the fish farm as well but it's a large area involving a 5km walk to the end of the ponds and the same back. There is a small steam train which runs at weekends which you can use to avoid the walk. 
The ponds hold a variety of water birds; Squacco and Purple Herons as well as the egrets, Marsh Harriers are constantly in view plus marsh terns with all three species around, numbers varied and I got the impression birds were moving through, Golden Orioles around the car park and a good range of wetland warblers with a handful of Great Reed, plenty of Reed and Sedge and quite a few Savi's Warblers and there is also a population of Moustached which I was keen to see.
Savi's Warbler
Penduline Tits could be heard calling all the way down the track and Bearded Tits were very active looking like some were carrying nesting material.
Penduline Tit - male
Bearded Tit - female
It was sunny but very windy making the search for warblers in the reed bed difficult but I finally located a singing male Moustached Warbler at the very end of the track.
Moustached Warbler
A colony of large gulls has established itself on an island viewable from hides at the end of the track, they are mainly Caspian Gulls but apparently there are also Yellow-legged with them.
Caspian Gull - adult
The following morning I planned to leave about mid-day but first I visited the Red-footed Falcons again and then went to look for the other bird which Hortobagy is well known for; the Saker Falcon, they tend to sit and even nest on the large pylons that cross the area in several places. I was lucky and found two birds either side of the road. They are distant and one bird was against the light but it was a reasonable view through a telescope. I stayed with them for a hour or so and eventually both birds flew but unfortunately both went away from me. They are an impressive bird, quite a bit bigger than a Peregrine looking about the size of Common Buzzard and a similar general colouration.
Saker on pylons and a crop which just about shows the bird!
I drove in a loop around Hortobagy and came across some nice groups of Common Crane feeding on the grassland and then finally set-off home.
Once I got near Budapest it was dual carriageway which continued through Austria, Germany, Belgium and France until I finally arrived at the Channel Tunnel.
I arrived home in Darley Dale at around 8pm on Saturday 7th May having driven just short of 10,000 miles and visited 12 different countries, a fantastic trip. Hopefully I can complete the second half of the trip to the Baltic States and Scandinavia next Spring!
I'll add in some of the scenic shots and other wildlife, particularly butterflies during the next few weeks.
Pam's mum, Barbara, passed away quietly in her sleep late on the 6th May, we will all miss her, she would have loved to have seen the photos from the trip.
The final route including return to UK

Wednesday, 4 May 2016

The Black Sea Coast

It was pouring with rain when I woke on 2nd May. I wondered around the deserted holiday village of Kamchia, these are strange places when they are empty. It's hard to imagine it every being busy and many of the buildings looked derelict. Needless to say I didn't see anything in the rain and wind so I moved north to Cape Kaliakra. The rain had just about stopped but the wind was still blowing when I arrived. As soon as I got out of the car I had hear the tuck call of Sylvia warblers and the 'hooeet' of a Willow Warbler. There were other calls too which I didn't recognise, this looked promising. A male Golden Oriole flew past and I could hear Bee-eaters calling. I stopped out of the wind and soon had brief views of a female Red-breasted Flycatcher, they gave a rippling ticking call like a subdued Wren and a more plaintive 'seep', the calls were coming from several directions at the same time and I put 6 in my note book but there could have been a dozen. 
Red-breasted Flycatcher - female, great little birds
Whilst I was watching one bird 2 Red-backed Shrikes appeared on the edge of a nearby bush.
I moved on slowly to the old walls which are a well known site for Pied Wheatear, one of the few places where this bird can be reliably seen in Europe. Sure enough within a few minutes a male appeared and what a superb bird it was. I've seen immature birds as vagrants in the UK but this was my first adult male. 
Pied Wheatear - males upper two photos and female below
Also on the wall was a male Black-headed Bunting which appeared exhausted as it allowed a very close approach. A female Pied Wheatear joined the male and as I searched round the area and the walk down to the Cafe I must have seen 7 or 8 birds plus 2 Northern Wheatear. 
Black-headed Bunting - male
As I walked down the narrow road a Little Bittern flew up from under my feet, the wind quickly took it away and it was lost from view.
Over the sea I saw several distance groups of small shearwaters which I presumed were Yelkouan but were too distant to tell
After several hours I got back in the van for the drive up the coast to Shabla, just as I was leaving Kaliakra a Great Spotted Cuckoo flew up from the road and landed in a roadside tree, this is well north of their normal range which ends at the southern Black Sea, an unusual record.
I parked near the campsite at Shabla Lake and saw someone bird watching down the track. I caught them up and was surprised to see that it was John Grist, someone I bird watched with in my twenties at Fairburn Ings and who I usually see at Spurn, it's a small world! He was coming to the end of a two week stay at Shabla. As we were talking a Ruddy Shellduck appeared on the lake along with several Ferruginous Ducks.  They had seen the first Thrush Nightingales and Paddyfield Warblers in the last few days and a Great Snipe just a little up the coast at Durankulak. Unfortunately it was raining again but I decided to have a look for the snipe, I saw several Roller on roadside wires as I drove a little further north, surprisingly these were my first of the trip.
No sign of the Great Snipe but there were hundreds of Black Terns feeding close inshore due to the wind, also quite a few White-winged Black Terns and Little Gulls with them, a fantastic sight. It was late in the evening but hopefully the photo gives an indication of the scene.

Black Terns
Unfortunately I had bad news from home that evening; Pam's mum had been unwell when we left in March but she had deteriorated whilst we were at Kerkini and was admitted to hospital. Her condition was getting worse and I decided that I was needed at home so would have to postpone the rest of my trip for another year. I will go home via Hungary and will make a few stops on the way.

Porto Lagos to the Black Sea Coast

I left Mandra Beach on Sunday morning (1st May) but had a look round the pools before I left. I'm glad I did because a Great Spotted Cuckoo flew past calling as I walked down the track. 
Great Spotted Cuckoo
The waders appeared to be pretty much as yesterday although I couldn't find any Marsh Sandpipers but on the plus side I think there must be at least 4 pairs of Spur-winged Plover on the drier areas surrounding the pools.
Spur-winged Plover
My next stop was the Evros Delta, I knew access could be difficult here and hadn't bothered to arrange a permit for the restricted border area. As it happens I met a bird watching couple from Preston who had just come from Evros, they had a permit but said that no photography was permitted in the border area which kind of supported my decision not to enter that area. I went to the visitor centre but it was closed, it was Easter Sunday in Greece so most places seemed to be shut.
I tried the area known as the Isabelline Flats which, unsurprisingly, is supposed to be good for Isabelline Wheatear. The area was agricultural land with fields full of crops and I soon got lost on the rough tracks. It didn't look like good habitat for Isabelline Wheatear which have similar habitat preferences to our Wheatear in my experience. Needless to say I didn't see any so headed for some pools by the beach. I ended up going back around Alexandria airport but eventually got to the beach which was actually very good  with small pools holding Wood Sandpipers and Little Stints and the rough coastal vegetation Short-toed and Crested Larks plus Tawny Pipit and a Black-headed Wagtails. As I drove on I disturbed a Collared Pratincole, parking up I soon located more and there were probably 20 in the area. It was early afternoon by now and the light was terrible, especially for photographing birds overhead. 
Collared Pratincole
After an hour or so with the pratincoles I decided to call it a day at Evros, it's probably a great area if you know it I didn't.
I headed for the Dadia Forest which was about an hours drive to the north and was on the route I planned to take into Bulgaria.
It was a good road getting there and I arrived at the plush visitor centre where the staff were very helpful and I watched a video about the raptor conservation in the forest which was very good. The nearby hotel was full, there seemed to be some sort of party going on with load music and dancing. I declined the offer to join in the the personnel at the centre kindly allowed me to park overnight on their car park.
I did the walk to the raptor observation hide and was pleased to hear and then see several male Eastern Bonelli's Warblers. It was difficult photographing them with the changing light in the wood and their constant activity but I persevered and eventually got some reasonable photos of this lovely bird that is a smaller version of our Wood Warbler.
Eastern Bonelli's Warbler
The Collins Guide suggests that dark lores may be a feature for separating Eastern from Western Bonelli's but these looked to have pale lores from most angles.
There was nothing to be seen from the hide late afternoon so I walked back having seen or heard 6 or 7 Bonelli's.
The following morning I took the organised bus back to the raptor hide, where animal carcasses are put out for the vultures. It was €4 for a one way trip as I planned to walk back again. It was overcast and raining which didn't bode well but the lady guide was optimistic so I and half a dozen interested Greeks headed off.
Egyptian, Griffon and Black Vultures
Black Vultures squabbling
Sat in the trees around the feeding area I counted 17 Black, 7 Griffon and 1 Egyptian Vulture which was joined by two others a little later on. As one Egyptian Vulture arrived it immediately mated with the original bird which got the other vultures attention (see photo). The distance was too great for decent photos but it still made for an impressive sight.
I was impressed with the set up and bought one of their T-shirts, I should probably have got a mug as well! I left around mid-day but on the short stretch of road which connects Dadia to the main road up to the border I had two Short-toed Eagles, Osprey, Common Buzzard and adult Lesser Spotted Eagle. It's definitely a good area for birds of prey.
Lesser Spotted Eagle - adult
I then drove about 500Km to the Black Sea coast stopping at Kamchia just short of Varna. Stopping on the way I had several Ortolan Bunting which were new for the trip.

Ortolan Bunting - male