There is no better chance to get acquainted with European birds than visit the dry sunny plains and explore forested mountains in Slovakia, Austria and Bulgaria. This carefully planned trip allows you to get to secret places where some hard-to-find specialities can be seen.
Slovakia and Bulgaria are still rather unknown destinations for many people but services were improved very much in recent years but birdlife remains undisturbed in the largely uninhabited areas. Owls have moved into nest boxes, raptors, woodpeckers, pelicans, warblers are abundant and thus birding became easier with our developing awareness.
Austria, to the west, has offered good birdwatching for many years. Lake Neusiedl and its environs is a famous place and attracts thousands of birds every spring. Its flat, open landscape allows easy spotting of distant birds so giving a good chance of seeing a rare species.
Day 1: From the Vienna airport we aim straight to our hotel in the Slovakian Carpathian mountains which reach here only 3600ft/1100m but the highest peaks are visible from the valley we drive along each day and at this time of year many of them are covered with snow. Dinner will be our only significant activity in the evening. Includes: (D).
Day 2: To start the day is the voluntary pre-breakfast birdwatching. Our hotel is situated in the sub alpine zone in Velka Fatra Mountains, far from the industrial towns so typical for Slovakia. Behind it stands a cliff with breeding Ravens and in front of the hotel there is a large meadow with mixed woods. Nutcracker, alpine race (alpestris) of Ring Ouzel and Fieldfare are most likely to be encountered in the morning, all breeding commonly here.
After breakfast we don't have to drive far to get to the forest where owls have already laid eggs and many other sedentary birds are just building their nests. This seldom visited area offers good quality forest tracks and plenty of elusive birds. Red-breasted Flycatchers arrived only recently but some White-backed Woodpeckers are already feeding their young.
Mixed spruces and mature beech forests here in the Carpathians cover steep slopes and it would be difficult to find birds here without the knowledge of our local guide. With his help, we will be able to spot some of those most 'wanted' local rarities like Tengmalm's and Pygmy Owls, Black, Grey-headed or Three-toed Woodpeckers. The other wildlife here is very secretive too, but we should find at least Salamander and Yellow-bellied Frog (whilst Fire-bellied Frog we'll find down at the lake), and maybe Red or Roe Deer. Includes: (B), (L), (D).
Day 3: Our morning birds will be singing well when, after an early breakfast, we stop at large reservoir surrounded by pastures and thick vegetation where we'll look for some typical passerines like Great Grey and Red-backed Shrikes, Marsh and Grasshopper Warblers, Stonechat and Whinchat, Whitethroat, Linnet or Common Rosefinch. After a short drive we will explore another forest path where we hope to see the local birding highlights we missed yesterday. Abundant but often well hidden species are often revealed by their songs performed overhead and with persistence we'll find Crested Tit, Firecrest, Bullfinch, Hawfinch or Crossbill.
Mating Goshawks are also noisy in early spring. We won't look for Black Stork in the forest but hope to see it soaring overhead. Rapid streams are home to Dipper and Grey Wagtail; whilst Corn Crakes and Quails are heard calling from the meadows. Hazel Grouse/Hen and Capercaillie are always less predictable birds and are most probably flushed when we walk in the forest. Anyway, we have two days to try our luck. Lesser Spotted Eagles breed abundantly in Slovakia and sometimes they even take their prey from the meadows neighbouring with the hotel, where sometimes Golden Eagles also feed. Includes: (B), (L), (D).
Day 4: Today we move south back to Austria. However, before noon we have about a one mile walk uphill to see a Wallcreeper's nesting crevice, one of the most accessible in the area. The female will be incubating eggs well hidden inside and we may have to wait, hopefully not more than for an hour, until the male comes to feed her. Some birds are easier to see en route in Slovakia and we stop especially to look for Imperial Eagle at the guarded nest and Saker in the fields. In the afternoon we cross the Danube river in Bratislava again, the Slovak capital and reach our Austrian hotel where we stay for four nights. The hotel is found at the south-east side of the lake where the best birdwatching is expected. After dinner we can get to know our local garden birds - Black Redstart, Serin and Icterine Warbler seem to be commonest ones' here. Includes: (B), (L), (D).
Day 5: We have left the hilly and mountainous landscape of Slovakia and have arrived at Europe's largest steppe lake. Extensive reedbeds around the shallow lake with brackish water hold vast numbers of water birds. A walk before breakfast is recommended again and we will be probably delighted to add Wryneck, Syrian or Lesser Spotted Woodpecker to the list. Sometimes all the European species of woodpecker can be seen during the trip. This day we spend by the water looking for local breeders and migrants on passage. More than a thousand Great Egret and several thousand Moustached Warbler breed around the lake, although the latter is sometimes not easy to find. Anything is possible and many birds are best observed in Seewinkel, an area of shallow small lakes with a series of hides.
Avocet, Black-winged Stilt, Spoonbill, Little Egret, Purple and Night Herons, Kentish Plover, Red-crested Pochard, Garganey, Ferruginous Duck, Greylag Geese, Grebes or Bluethroat, Black, Whiskered and White-winged Black Terns, Little and Mediterranean Gulls and various waders can all be seen in one day if we are lucky and visit more than one place. After the dinner is the best time to go to listen to the many voices belonging to Great Reed, Reed and Savi's Warblers, Little or Spotted Crakes, Water Rail, Little and Common Bitterns and number of frog species. Includes: (B), (L), (D).
Day 6: The small Waasen-Hansag reserve lies on the border with Hungary. In early May we can get quite close good views of displaying male Great Bustard in the meadows. Maize is sown late here and thus we can even find many females standing in the open! Sleepy Short-eared Owl often watch over the flat carpets of grass, and Lapwing, Montagu's Harrier, Curlew, Redshank and Black-tailed Godwit all breed on the artificially flooded meadows and in the fields. Roadside birds include here Stonechat, continental race of Yellow Hammer, Red-backed Shrike, and we'll also try for Barred Warbler, Crested Lark or Rufous Nightingale, all not uncommon where we search.
Canal fringes, woods and windbreaks are also very much alive with Golden Oriole, Penduline and Bearded Tits, River and Marsh Warblers, Hobby or Long-eared Owl. Raptors are usually spotted from a distance, with most common here being Marsh Harrier and Kestrel. Osprey, Eagle sp. or Red-footed Falcon are regular visitors to the area. Around lunchtime we may picnic at a convenient place by the water and look for fresh birds that came in last night to rest after crossing the high Alps or the Great Hungarian Plain. Includes: (B), (L), (D).
Day 7: We haven't explored a flooded forest yet, but we will during the morning of our last day - another fascinating habitat with mature oaks, ashes and poplars, formerly regularly flooded by a river in February or March. Honey Buzzard, Middle Spotted Woodpecker, Collared Flycatcher and Short-toed Treecreeper are common here; Black Stork, Red and Black Kites should be gliding over the trees. We lunch in the meadow and move back to the water habitats to see what's new there. Flocks of migrating waders can always bring a surprise like Marsh Sandpiper but we have to keep trying. If we haven't seen Hoopoe yet then vineyards are good place to look and for Corn Bunting too. Green Lizard, Souslik, Hamster, Steppe Polecat and both Martens live in this area and we'll always have a chance of unexpected thrill as we spend three full days in the field. Includes: (B), (L), (D).
Day 8: We leave Lake Neusiedl to meet our plane at the Vienna airport. Enroute we visit a Bee-eater colony and we have two hours left to find our last birds in Austria. A flight to the Bulgarian capital - Sofia follows. After landing the Bulgarian part of the tour begins with a transfer to Pamporovo mountain resort (Central Rodopi Mountains). The hotel is situated amidst pine forests at an altitude of 1500 m a. s. l.. Staying overnight at the Perelik hotel. Birds to watch in the hotel vicinity: Common Crossbill, Rock Bunting, Pallid Swift. Along the road we will have a few stops with good opportunities to spot White Stork, Honey Buzzard, Hoopoe, Syrian Woodpecker, Red-backed Shrike. Includes: (B), (L), (D).
Day 9: After an early breakfast we'll pack up and head for the magnificent Trigrad Gorge. This area is part of the Rodopi Mountains but is something quite different form the rounded hills covered with coniferous forests at Pamporovo resort. The first thing that impresses the visitor are the huge cliffs towering above and the deep rocky valley, where the meandering the Trigrad river can hardly be seen. Strange trees of a local subspecies of Black Pine (Pinus nigra) grow right out of the rocks where there is no soil for their roots. All the time while we are there we cannot help but stand in awe before the nature's grandeur.
Unfortunately, this is only a poor and sketchy description of this extraordinary place with its caverns and the rumble of its waterfalls. One can hardly imagine the gorge beauty if one does not see it with one's own eyes. This exceptionally beautiful area is 1200 m above sea level. It is approximately an hour drive from the hotel in Pamporovo. Welcome to the Land of the Wallcreeper. This is simply the best and the most accessible place in Europe or maybe in the world to see this marvellous bird which reminds an enormous butterfly in flight. It is here where after a short and easy walk along the road for about 2 km that we hope to see this wonderful bird.
After lunch we will travel to the town of Kroumovgrad along a not very long but "slow" road because we are in the Rodopi Mountains. You will notice with amazement how kilometer after kilometer the mountain changes, the coniferous forests are replaced by mixed ones and afterwards by pure deciduous stands, and the trees become smaller and stunted. Then come the shrubs followed by bare rocky hills and finally the huge basalt cliffs. The world of the large birds of prey lies before us. Night at Ahrida hotel in Kroumovgrad. There are good opportunities to watch Black and White Storks, Spanish Sparrow, Lesser Grey Shrike, Red-rumped Swallow, Scops Owl. Includes: (B), (L), (D).
Day 10: The next visit is to the Studen Kladenetz region close to Kroumovgrad. The area is of ancient volcanic origin with stony ground, huge rocks scattered around, small stunted shrubs and almost complete lack of wild growing mature trees. This part - the Eastern - of the Rodopi Mountains is well known as one of Europe's most important regions for birds of prey. We will spend all day birdwatching around and hopefully will see Golden, Imperial, Booted and Short-toed Eagles, Long-legged Buzzard, Black, Egyptian and Griffon Vultures and many species of smaller birds like Pallid Swift, Rock Nuthatch, Rock and Blue Rock Thrushes, Roller, Bee-eater, Red-rumped Swallow, Lesser Grey and Woodchat Shrikes, Somber Tit, Cirl, Black-headed and Ortolan Buntings, Barred, Subalpine, Sardinian and Orphean Warblers. Night at Ahrida hotel. Includes: (B), (L), (D).
Day 11: Again a long but necessary transfer, this time to the lowlands along the Bulgarian south Black Sea coast. We will stay for 3 nights at the Park hotel, which is just outside the town of Bourgas, close to the Atanasovsko salt Lake Nature Reserve and the Bourgas town beach. This is the most important area in Bulgaria for large and small migrating birds from the huge region of Central and Eastern Europe during the spring and autumn migration. While on the move we will have plenty of time for stops to look for specialties like Masked Shrike, Olive-tree Warbler, Lesser Spotted Eagle, Montagu's Harrier. Includes: (B), (L), (D).
Day 12: All day long we will be in the area around the two big Bourgas freshwater lakes, Mandra and Vaya, with the extensive reed-beds on their lakesides. There are flooded meadows, marshes, low hills, and oak forests in the surrounding countryside. These diverse habitats make this region one of the best in Europe for wetland and other species of birds. There we can spot Pygmy Cormorant, Night, Squacco, Purple and Grey Herons, Little and Great White Egrets, Spoonbills, Glossy Ibis, White Pelican, Slender-billed, Mediterranean and Little Gulls, Avocet, Black-winged Stilt, Somber Tit, Grey-headed and Middle Spotted Woodpeckers, White-tailed Sea Eagle, Lesser Spotted Eagle, Honey Buzzard, Short-toed Eagle. Night at the Park hotel. Includes: (B), (L), (D).
Day 13: A visit to the Ropotamo Nature Reserve. It's a big reserve including wetlands, the river Ropotamo and a part of Strandza Mountain, with broad-leaved forests, sand dunes and a part of the sea coast. A very good place for watching Middle and Great Spotted, the Black and Grey-headed Woodpeckers, Short-toed Treecreeper, a breading pair of Whitå-tailed Sea Eagles, Honey Buzzard, Booted Eagle and, if we are lucky, the Semi-collared flycatcher. Night at the Park hotel. Includes: (B), (L), (D).
Day 14: We head north along the Black Sea coast. The next three nights we will spend in the town of Kavarna at Panorama hotel. The hotel is outside the town, perched on a hill just above the sea. Two nice wooded valleys can also be seen from the hotel. Very good opportunities to watch Golden Oriole, Bee-eaters, Roller, Syrian Woodpecker, Hobby, Levant Sparrowhawk. On the way north we will stop at Goritza oak forest (while crossing the Balkan Range), where we will concentrate on spotting Great, Middle and Lesser Spotted, Grey-headed, Green, and Black Woodpeckers, and, if we have some good luck, the rare White-backed Woodpecker and Short-toed Treecreeper. Lunch at the local forest restaurant. Includes: (B), (L), (D).
Day 15: A visit to the Cape Kaliakra Steppe Nature Reserve. This is a coastal headland. Its white and reddish cliffs descend precipitously into the depths of the sea from a height of over 200 m. Inland, the sky above the rolling steppe is dotted with slow-flapping Calandra and Short-toed Larks. The habitat also suits Isabeline and Pied Wheatears and Stone curlew. Almost everywhere, perched on small shrubs we can see Lesser Grey and Red-backed Shrikes, Black-headed and Corn Buntings. This is also the region where sometimes the Rose-coloured Starlings appear during their periodic invasions from Asia. Night at the Panorama hotel. Includes: (B), (L), (D).
Day 16: After an early breakfast a visit to lake Dourankoulak, a freshwater body some 5 km from the Romanian border. It's a very important wetland area for the breeding, migrating and wintering birds with its extensive reed-beds and open water area. Here we will be most interested to spot Paddyfield Warbler, Collared Pratincole, Spotted and Little Crakes, Pygmy Cormorant, Glossy Ibis, Spoonbill, Ferruginous Duck, Little and Great Bitterns, Gull-billed and Caspian Terns, Bearded Tit, Red-footed Falcon, Levant Sparrowhawk, Long-legged Buzzard. Night at the Panorama hotel. Includes: (B), (L), (D).
Day 17: Driving inland today, we'll cross the Dobrudza steppes to reach the famous Srebarna Lake Biosphere Reserve. Its extensive reed-beds give perfect shelter for Globally threatened with extinction Dalmatian Pelican, Ferruginous duck, Pygmy cormorant and a number of other more or less rare birds like Red-necked and Black-necked Grebes, Purple, Squacco and Night Herons, Marsh Harrier, Penduline Tit to breed. The Lesser Spotted Eagle, Levant Sparrowhawk, Goshawk breed in the broad-leaved forests around the lake. The Ruddy Shellduck also breeds in the banks of the small dry valleys around the lake. In the afternoon we will visit the Danube river proper. Birds likely to be seen there: Dalmatian Pelicans, Herons, Woodpeckers. Night at Dobrudza hotel in the center of the town of Silistra. There simply is no alternative. Includes: (B), (L), (D).
Day 18: Driving west along the Danube we reach Nova Cherna marshland. Initially the area was a typical Danube riverside marsh, then it was turned into a fish farm during the communist regime, and today it is a partially restored marshland again. A good place for watching Whiskered Tern, Red-necked, Black-necked, Little and Great Crested Grebes, Pygmy Cormorant. In the afternoon we head south to the open-air museum of Etara near the town of Gabrovo. We will stay overnight at Etara hotel (built in the traditional Bulgarian architectural style). There is a restaurant at the hotel offering Bulgarian national dishes and drinks. At the open-air museum those interested can have a look at our old Bulgarian crafts and buy some typical Bulgarian souvenirs. Here is one of the last opportunities on this trip to see the Dipper, Somber tit and some more Woodpeckers. Includes: (B), (L), (D).
Day 19: Transfer to Sofia. Depending on the international flights we may visit Vitosha Mountain Nature Park (very close to Sofia), where we can finish our tour with Nutcracker, Crossbill, Coal Tit, and if we have a good luck - Alpine Accentor. Includes: (B), (L).
The flight Vienna to Sofia is included in the price.
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