Bulgaria Travel Diary - p 1

26 May 2012
I have never met anyone from Bulgaria. Nor have I ever heard of anything that happened in Bulgaria. It is therefore reasonable to wonder if it actually exists. Perhaps Bulgaria, like Saskatchewan or Paraguay, is an imaginary place, created by mapmakers just for the fun of it. 
    One way to find out is to hop a plane in Albuquerque, New Mexico and fly to Bucharest, Romania.  If you've booked a tour with the Bulgarian company Spatia Wildlife, you will be met there by Tisho Stefanov, your Bulgarian guide.   He will drive you and your fellow photographers, in my case Britons Elizabeth Holmes, Mike Thurner, and Duncan Hill, south to a bridge that crosses  the Danube River into the town of Ruse.

    And there it is - Bulgaria.   You see rolling fields of sunflower, maize, and winter wheat that go on forever.  And of course Bulgarian birds that dart across the highway or perch on something.
    Driving east on near-deserted roads through sparsely populated villages, you soon reach Vetren and the delightful Pelican Birding Lodge.  Birdsong around the lodge includes nightingales, cuckoos, and Golden Orioles, one of which has a nest near the lodge..

27 May 2012
Our hostess, Dora, speaks good English and serves a fine breakfast of coffee, boiled eggs, yogurt, salami, and cheeses such as sirene and kashkava, both quite tasty.
    Afterwards we visit Srebarna Lake, viewing from a distance Dalmatian Pelicans, Great Horned Grebes, and the like.  But a steady, day-long rain foils our plans for photography.  We retreat to the comfort of the lodge.

28 May 2012
Now the sun shines.  We drive west.  Near the town of Tutrakan, Tisho sets Duncan and me up in a portable blind, or hide as it is known in these parts.  Some 10 m away is a clay bank perforated with the nesting holes of European Bee-eaters, our main target bird for the trip.
   Bee-eaters of course eat bees, in fact just about any flying insect, always catching them on the wing.   They bash venomous insects' heads and abdomen against a branch to release the venom.   Then, after tossing it into the air, it becomes a meal.  On a good day, the bird will eat about 250 insects.


European Bee-eater

    European Bee-eater is in fact an African bird that migrates into Europe to breed.  The ones here in Bulgaria most likely winter in southern Africa; then, make a spring flight north, crossing the Arabian Desert and the Mediterranean Sea into Europe.   It sounds risky, and it is.  Ornithologist Hilary Fry has estimated that of the bee-eaters who migrate back to Africa in autumn, 30% fall prey to falcons and other hazards and never make it back to Europe the next spring.
    Studies of bee-eater clan behavior read like a soap opera, complete with cheating by both spouses, parental interference, and siblings helping their parents raise another brood.  But as near as I could tell, the two birds shown here were merely having a pecking order squabble.  It ended with their long beaks joined until one of the two yielded and flew away.

But the main business at hand is getting that burrow, about 2-3 feet deep, ready for egg-laying and then rearing chicks.  The chamber at the end appears to be wide enough for the birds to turn around, because they go in head first and come out head first.
   Birds in the colony often nest close to relatives.  If their nest is predated by a snake, they will then pitch in and help feed a kin's chicks.

European Roller The other eagerly sought African migrant, European Roller, proved less cooperative than the bee-eaters.  Bulgaria had a very cold winter and now a late spring.  Rollers who've arrived are not yet breeding.  Like bee-eaters, they nest in clay banks.   Their common name comes from the flight display of the male, which we hoped to see but did not.   We had to be content with photographing this Roller along the roadside.
29 May 2012
With more rain in the forecast, Tisho decides we should drive south of the Balkans into the Rose Valley.  On the way, we visit a grove of poplars along the Danube River where Tisho has found a Black Woodpecker nest, complete with hungry chicks.  My only good photo shows the female and a young male eagerly awaiting lunch.  The range of Black Woodpeckers extends from Europe across Asia to the Pacific.  They are the Old World counterpart to our familiar (and more handsome) Pileated Woodpecker, and are in fact in the same genus.
    Fortunately for visitors to Bulgaria, most roads signs are posted in both the Cyrillic and Latin alphabet.  Stop signs are inscribed with the word STOP to make sure no one fails to recognize this most crucial of road signs.
Black Woodpecker


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