Bulgaria, the Western Rhodopes
22 – 29 June 2016
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 Nemoptera sinuata (Chris Gibson)
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.
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 copper, Balkan zephyr blue, poplar admiral (Chris Gibson).
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)
In Yagodina, we stay at the family-run Hotel Yagodina.
Price: £1,400 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
Maximum number: 14
Tim Strudwick is the RSPB's Site Manager for the Mid Yare nature reserves in Norfolk – Strumpshaw Fen and nearby. Naturally, Tim knows his birds, but he's also a keen botanist and runs courses on sedges and rushes. Another expertise is in solitary bees and wasps, for which he is the Norfolk county recorder.
A challenge Tim took recently was recording 1,000 wildlife species - of all kinds of taxa - in the square kilometre near his home in a village near Strumpshaw Fen.
Botanist Vladimir (Vlado) Trifonov, who was also with our holidays in June 2011, 2014 and 2015, is co-leader. Vlado is the Bulgarian authority on the spectacular Lilium rhodopaeum.
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.