Friday, 22 July 2011

Steppe and Shabla

My week's tour of Bulgarian birding sites (with Paul Bowden from the UK) started with a day trip to Cape Kaliakra and Lake Shabla. They are north east of my village through Balchik and then east of the main road to Romania.

Both are well known birding areas which most tours have in their itinerary. It's easy to see why. A narrow coastal strip centred on Kaliakra and only one kilometre wide is home to Bulgaria's only real steppe habitat. Steppe, of course, is much more common in central Asia and southern Russia. It is characterised by flat grassland with only slightly more rainfall than a semi-desert. Lake Shabla is a wetland just north of the steppe area.

Since both these habitats are different from much of the rest of Bulgaria so are some of the birds.

a view of the steppe south of Kaliakra

I have lots of experience of steppe birding when I worked in Azerbaijan. It is a habitat which is loved by larks and wheatears. From our observations Bulgarian steppe is no different.

calandra lark

The dominant lark here is calandra lark. It can be seen in a few other places in Bulgaria but here it is abundant. It's presence really reminded me of Azerbaijan. Its behaviour is quite similar to skylark which is also present.

crested lark south of Kaliakra

Crested lark can tolerate a wider variety of habitat than calandra lark and one of those is steppe.

Wheatears were very common throughout the area as was expected.  This is the northern (and western) limit of pied wheatear. Most birding tours try hard to see this bird and normally report seeing one or two. We searched for a long time and eventually saw one female and later one male in a different place. Unfortunately we failed to take a photo. Since going on the trip I have read that pied wheatear is locally common on the Cape at Kaliakra. We clearly made the wrong decision to avoid it because it would have many tourists. The birds are reportedly tame there too because they are used to people!

Isabelline wheatear on a wire

There are larger numbers of both northern wheatear and the steppe loving Isabelline wheatear.

male northern wheatear

Identification of adult birds was relatively straight forward. However there were proportionately more juveniles.  Both types of juvenile have more chestnut colour in their wings than adult birds which lose this colouration.

juvenile Isabelline wheatear

At times it was difficult to tell them apart. Two helpful factors were that Isabelline juveniles tended to adopt a more erect posture and have more black on their tail than the northern wheatears

juvenile northern wheatear

The chestnut colour is more pronounced on the young northern wheatear and there is a hint of greyness on the head. Seeing so many juveniles was great ID practice.

tawny pipit

Tawny pipit is another bird which likes steppe. I saw many on passage in my village area but none since early May so I assume my area is just too wet for them. Kaliakra is probably ideal.

common starling

The Kaliakra area has arguably the most sightings of rosy starling every summer in Bulgaria but we failed to see any. They were a couple of large flocks of common starling but close attention failed to reveal any rosy starling among them.

common roller south of Kaliakra

Common roller is indeed common in much of Bulgaria but not close to the coast. Kaliakra is an exception and we didn't find it difficult to see them.

bee-eater south of Kaliakra

Another colourful bird found in decent numbers is bee-eater.

The habitat near Kiliakra has been degraded in places by golf courses and irrigated land but there still enough steppe area to maintain the eco-system. 

red backed shrike

On the more irrigated land and on natural scrub where the steppe starts to grade towards maquis there are plenty of red backed shrike.

white stork

There are a couple of small villages nearby with a normal cross section of  village birds of which the most attractive is probably white stork. This one was balanced on a telegraph pole.

One of the small villages is at a bay on the coast. It has a mussel farm and a restaurant or two. It was here we saw a flock of black headed gull in the water.

black headed gull in the black sea

There was also a separate flock of yellow legged gull of various ages hugging the coast.

yellow legged gull

Possibly the most interesting birding aspect at the village was the colony of spanish sparrow. There about 20-25 nests on one tree which easy to observe because it had few leaves.  The strangest part of all this is that only adult males were visible on the tree and all the females appeared to be out foraging and/or looking after the fledglings.

Spanish sparrow colony

I wonder if anyone has seen this behaviour in Spanish sparrow before? Are the males protecting individual but very small territories?

two male spanish sparrow on tree- representatives of several others

Swirling around the skies were many house martin and barn swallow so the village looked very busy with birds. I'm not sure about the hygiene of having a restaurant underneath the Spanish sparrow though I am told it is one of the best restaurants in the region.

one of many house martin nests

This small coastal village also had large numbers of occupied house martin and barn swallow nests. Many Bulgarian swallows and martins produce two broods a year. Its highly likely that we saw the second broods in the nests given the lateness in the season.

occupied barn swallow nest

After we left the village we headed further north towards Lake Shabla. Before you get there, there is another some settlement with what I am told is the oldest lighthouse in Bulgaria. This draws in a small but steady stream of foreign and Bulgarian tourists to the place. This otherwise idyllic place is marred somewhat by the smell of sewage!

the oldest lighthouse in Bulgaria

We didn't stay long but long enough to photograph several cormorant which were resting on an old jetty. There was once small oil production here and the jetty served that industry. Now it is blocked off and serves as a haven for cormorant.   

On the near -by very narrow beach area we saw two or three waders including common sandpiper.

resting cormorants

We finally arrived at Shabla and immediately parked up next to an observation platform which has almost certainly been put there for bird watchers. After all this site is a fixture of most bird tours to Bulgaria.

From here we could see several species.  By the way, there will be a trip report produced for the week in the meantime this blog will list some but not all species.   To give you a flavour some of the species seen, we immediately saw  mute swan, coot and both large and small waders. In particular while we were there there was a mobile mixed group of waders including greenshank and grey plover (still in breeding plumage). The sight of grey plover was our first indication that there might be significant numbers of waders already on their southern passage journey. This was later to be proved correct as future blogs will tell.

paddyfield warbler

Some birders come to Lake Shabla for one bird only, paddyfield warbler. This Indian migrant spends the summer at Shabla and wetlands further north round the Black Sea into Romania and Ukraine. Shabla is one of the most accessible places to see it.

From the raised viewing platform we could see warblers in the reeds and particularly in the sedge. We moved round the lake about 10 metres to get a better view. It is obvious that other birders had done the same. The grass was trampled and a small (very muddy) path had been cut in the reeds to the water's edge!

Form the raised trampled grass area we saw several paddyfield warbler in the sedge. This bird doesn't appear to be shy. However, I had to take care with my observations though because there were also many great reed warbler in the same areas which are even more tame. It was best to focus on one bird and not flit around because the next bird could easily be great reed warbler.

young black winged stilt

Here we saw many other birds. For example, several black wing stilt flew over and we could get a better look at the mixed group of waders..

mute swan at Shabla

Here we saw a small number of ferruginous duck. Although its quite a rare duck in world terms we found it locally common on two or three of our trips to Bulgarian wetlands.

ferruginous duck

There were also some tern present. The one below is a common tern. Tern identification turned out to be a big topic on other trips during the week as we saw many sterna and marsh terns at various locations. 

common tern

Lets not forget the "ordinary" birds in the neighbourhood too. For example, feldegg yellow wagtail (sometimes called blacked headed wagtail were numerous.

yellow wagtail

In the next blog, I'll take a look at what we saw at Srebarna Lake near Silistra by the Danube. We were hosted by Mike Black a local guide and guesthouse owner who runs an excellent Bird Information Centre. What he doesn't know about this area isn't worth knowing! Srebarna is famous for its pelicans but we found it has much more.

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