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Bulgaria, the Western Rhodopes
20 – 27 June 2018

Wallcreepers, lilies and more

Few countries can rival Bulgaria’s scenic splendour and diverse nature. The country’s most valuable natural features are protected in three national parks, twelve nature parks and numerous wildlife and nature refuges.

The higher plants number about 3,500 species, including more than 400 Bulgarian and Balkan endemics and nearly 70 species of orchids. Bulgaria boasts the richest dragonfly and butterfly fauna in Europe.

This holiday concentrates on the mountains, meadows and gorges of the Western Rhodopes. The Rhodope Mountains are in southern Bulgaria, close to the border with Greece.

The mountains’ pine-clad slopes are occasionally cut by rivers winding through deep gorges, one of which is the magnificent Trigrad Gorge. Its limestone cliffs are known for their wallcreepers. It’s probably one of the easiest places in Europe to see this sometimes elusive bird, constantly flicking its crimson-and-black wings while investigating rocky nooks for food.

In Trigrad Gorge we can enjoy birds like peregrine, alpine swift, crag martin, red-rumped swallow and dipper. Elsewhere in the forests, crags and mountain meadows of the Western Rhodopes we hope to find black woodpecker, alpine and pallid swifts, nutcracker, sombre tit, red-backed shrike and rock bunting.

The cultural heritage and traditions of Bulgaria include magnificent architecture from the 18th and 19th centuries in many towns and villages. Ancient icons, breath-taking murals and superb woodcarvings preserved in monasteries and churches, form just a part of the religious, historic and cultural wealth.

Other traditions include the tasty Bulgarian cuisine, salads especially, good local wines and, in our experience, a warm welcome in the mountain village of Yagodina. Here we are based at the family-run Hotel Yagodina, well located for walks around the village.

Pennant-winged ant-lion
Pennant-winged ant-lion Nemoptera sinuata (Chris Gibson)

Flowers

Low intensity agriculture means that the Western Rhodopes have retained vast swathes of beautiful grasslands, with a dazzling array of wild flowers, a mixture of familiar species and local specialities.

In the gorges especially, there are several endemic species, one of the best known being Haberlea rhodopensis, which is related to African violets. Others endemics include Valeriana montana, Rhodope sandwort Arenaria rhodoaea, a bellflower Campanula orphanidea and the saxifrage Saxifraga stribrnyi. There are four geum species, two foxgloves, three wintergreens, an unusual bugle Ajuga lazmanii, St Bernard’s lily and many orchids – just a few names from so many in a rich and varied area for a botanist.

Perhaps the star species is the Rhodope lily, found only here and in nearby Greece. It’s in flower-rich high mountain meadows, along with corncrakes and swarms of marsh fritillaries and other butterflies.

Butterflies

The bewildering variety – 72 species on one previous visit – includes many local or unusual species: Balkan zephyr blue, Balkan copper, powdered brimstone and poplar admiral. These mingle with butterflies found more widely in mainland Europe, such as spotted, Queen-of-Spain and Glanville fritillaries, Apollo, chestnut heath, Idas blue and more.

Balkan copperBalkan zephyr bluepoplar admiral
Balkan copper, Balkan zephyr blue, poplar admiral (Chris Gibson).

Other wildlife

Red squirrel, pine marten and wild cat are found in the mountains, plus souslik in the lowlands. Agile frog and fire salamander occur. Among a big range of dragonflies, moths and other invertebrates, one of the most spectacular is the pennant-winged ant-lion.

Yagodina from Chala mountain village (Helen Crowder)
Yagodina from Chala mountain village (Helen Crowder)

Hotel

In Yagodina, we stay at the family-run Hotel Yagodina.

Holiday details

Price: £1,450 per person in twin room for a full week (Wednesday to Wednesday)

Single room supplement: £100

En suite facilities.

Flights: Scheduled Ryanair flights, London Stansted to Plovdiv

Deposit: £300

Maximum number: 14

Leaders

Chris Gibson has recently taken early retirement from Natural England where he was based in north Essex. He is an author of several wildlife books and has led many holidays for Honeyguide. He is an outstanding all rounder, from birds through flowers to moths, and recognised as a ‘naturalist of distinction’ by the British Naturalists’ Association.

Botanist Vladimir (Vlado) Trifonov, who was also with our holidays in June 2011, 2014, 2015 and 2016, is co-leader. Vlado is the Bulgarian authority on the spectacular Lilium rhodopaeum.

Conservation project

The Rhodope lily Lilium rhodopaeum is a very scarce flower of the Western Rhodopes. It’s found on just a handful of sites in Bulgaria and just over the border in Greece, about half of which have no official protection. Our local leader, Vlado, is the Bulgarian authority on this spectacular endemic, and with our help leads on its monitoring and conservation.

Ove the years, donations have been split between BSPB and Vlado Trifonov. For BSPB, this has funded meetings with local stakeholders as BSPB continues to lobby to get Tzigansko Gradishte designated for nature conservation. For Vlado it has for several years funded monitoring and mowing at the location visited by Honeyguiders.

More on the conservation of Lilium rhodopaeum here.

Bulgaria map

Reports

Bugs and Beasties of the Western Rhodopes. 6MB PDF. A photoguide to some lesser-known species, by Chris Gibson and Judith Poyser.

Holiday report for June 2016.

Holiday report for June 2015.

Holiday report for June 2014. More holiday reports here.

Trigrad gorge (Dimiter Georgiev)

Honeyguide web pages

Rhodope lily Lilium rhodopaeum

Poda nature reserve and other news from Bulgaria, January 2011 - click here

More about wallcreepers here

wallcreeper

Wallcreeper (Svetoslav Spasov)

Bulgaria photos

Tim Strudwick's photos, June 2016.

Gallery: pictures from the recce visit to Bulgaria in September 2008.

Pictures from June 2010 by Honeyguider Brennan Aunger here. Click on 'photo album'.

Haberlea rhodopensis

Haberlea rhodopensis (Mihaela Yordanova)
Saxifraga stribrnyi

Rosettes of Saxifraga stribrnyi, endemic to the Rhodope Mountains.

A meadow in June in the Trigrad area of the Western Rhodopes (Dimiter Georgiev)

Apollo

Apollo butterfly

Nutcracker

Nutcracker (Assen Ignatov)

Koprivshtitsa

Before return flights from Sofia, we used to stay at the Bashtina Kashta (Father’s House) Hotel in the conservation village of Koprivshtitsa. More about Koprivshtitsa on Wikipedia here.

Chris Gibson

Chris Gibson. More about Chris on his website www.chrisgibsonwildlife.co.uk.

Lilium rhodopeaum

Lilium rhodopeaum

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