Monday, 2 June 2014

Bulgaria Day 7 May 24th 2014

All too quickly our week was nearing the end but not before we had one last photo session in a drinking pool hide. Much too our delight the hide was an excellent set up. A large cabin big enough for four people was set in to the ground so that your eye level was just above the ground. There were two viewing points that had a shelf suitable for a bean bag, two that needed a tripod. I was happy with the later. Behind us was a single bed so anyone contemplating an all night session was well catered for and for Mike and I made an ideal place to leave spare equipment.
The whole thing was set in a private garden plot that didn't have a house, just a garden room.
Why couldn't we have had this standard all week instead of some really poor quality temporary hides we had had to put up with ?
The set up wasn't perfect, depending on your position you couldn't see everything but that's to be expected. Mike never had a chance with the Hoopoe that made a brief appearance
Unfortunately it wandered out of sight of both of us after a very brief foray in the longer grass
I only wished I'd caught it with the crown feathers up when it landed !
There was one issue though that we were surprised nobody had done anything about. Around the garden was a wire fence. Two rows of white plastic coated wire. Very irritating because you kept on picking it up.
Like so
The Nuthatch duly obliged by taking up other positions
One of the best,if not the best sight of the day landed in exactly the wrong spot.
A series of shots all have the same effect but I was so relieved when it flew to a different spot altogether.
This time the issue was the cultivated earth on the  vegetable plot but at least it's not a uniform line !
The Nightingale, out in the open was extremely special giving me my best photo opportunity ever.
Didn't last long but both Mike and I got our shots.
Another species that did likewise was the Tree Sparrow. Not an easy bird to see in the UK nowadays either. They are doing well in Bulgaria it seems.
Tree Sparrow
The youngsters have already fledged the nest.
Tree Sparrow
but still demanding food !
Tree Sparrow
An extremely special bird to see close up was the Hawfinch.
There were several about including the duller marked females
but best of all, a juvenile.
Unfortunately very timid he never showed the full extent of his body, well not from my position anyway. Mike and I were both taken aback at first sighting as we had never seen one before so for a fraction you wondered what you were looking at.
On the other hand when this Woodpecker appeared we thought it didn't look quite right !
Syrian Woodpecker
Although the difference is fairly marginal it was in fact a Syrian Woodpecker, a lifer for us both.
We also saw the female too
Syrian Woodpecker
Even more like the Great Spotted Woodpecker without the red head markings to compare.
To make like difficult we had the GSW there as well !
Great Spotted Woodpecker
When it comes to this one I'm not sure which species it is !
Syrian Woodpecker or GSW 1 (4)
I lean towards GSW as the red is quite vivid, whereas the Syrian is pinkish.
Not a bad morning's work.
Lucky had come back late morning to see what we wanted to do, either stay or go back to the Hoopoe. We were happy to stay, we didn't want to take lunch until we left either. If necessary on our way to the airport. We agreed a return time of 3.00pm but he returned at 2.00. The sun was getting stronger after a variable morning's light so we said nothing and packed our bags to go. This involved our hold luggage too as that's were the tripods would be stowed.By 2.30pm we were on the road and by 3.30 ordering our lunch. Lucky knew a restaurant that specialised in Trout.
Trout !
It used to farm them but now imports the fish, the trout ponds disused. I have never see quite so many choices on one menu for a single fish !
I chose one stuffed with peppers and aubergine, it was delicious, just a shame the equally delicious but separately served sautéed potatoes had all been eaten by the time  it was served.
Trout !
Two hot and tasty meals in succession , maybe Bulgaria has a lot more to offer than the food standard of our hotel in Bratsigova.
Food consumed we continued towards Sofia and the airport on largely traffic free roads but there was still incident to reflect on later. Our car started to overheat and we had to pull over to let it cool down. Lucky had told the boss it was problem but he had been told to wait to have it fixed. Could have missed our plane as a result, but that was probably why Lucky came and picked us up early.
Was that the end ? Nope !
Sofia  airport has two terminals and we had been delivered to the wrong one. Fortunately we were 15 minutes before the final shuttle bus of the day so all was not lost.
We were Lucky's first drop off return so I'm not sure who was at fault. Us for not checking where we were, him for not asking which one we wanted or the Boss for not making sure he knew where he was going.
When we got home I wrote a letter, not really of complaint but more one of warning. If they are to survive they need to get their act together. Professional prices should equate to professional service.
I highlighted poor equipment levels, poor communication and poor training. I got a reply that basically acknowledged all my comments were true.
Mike and I are sceptical that things will improve.
We had an excellent trip though, saw some great birds, had some good company to share some laughs. It was a success despite the organisation rather than because of it.
I suppose the fact that Mike turned to me as we entered the terminal building and said he wouldn't be coming back says it all really but I'm not sure if what we saw is reflective of everyone else's experience though.
Only one way to find out.. try for yourselves !
Hope this blog has proved useful

Sunday, 1 June 2014

Bulgaria Day 6 May 23rd 2014

And so, we had reached the penultimate day already. Mike headed off for another session with the Bee-eaters, I had my final attempts looking for Shrikes along the hillside track I had originally intended for the previous evening.
In due course the Red-backed duly obliged. Both male
Red-backed Shrike
and female
Red-backed Shrike
Compared to the Woodchat Shrike they were quite numerous. The Woodchat were not only low in number but more difficult to get close to.
Woodchat Shrike
I had all but given up when, as we were returning to the hotel,I saw this one high up a tree.
Woodchat Shrike
Close and much more confiding, probably because he knew he was safe up there. I gave up and headed back to the hotel to pack. We were leaving straight after lunch.
Packing didn't take long, I said farewell to my room and made a mental note that I had never stayed anywhere for quite so long without the room being cleaned, bed made etc. Still, I had been able to leave all my belongings in neat piles around the floor which was a lot less effort than finding homes for them or rooting in the suitcase all the time!
Down for a final lunch the first person to join me was Marcel, last nights new arrival. I was keen to hear if the Woodpeckers had shown but was taken aback to discover he'd been to the Stone Curlew hide as they were of more interest. If only I'd known I would have loved the opportunity for the 'peckers., once again the lack of communication had let me down. Mike was back soon after and it appeared his last morning with Christian hadn't gone down well either. Much of the time they had been surrounded by goats and a screaming goat herder ! More frustration, still, the good news was we could get away an hour earlier than planned. It was almost a relief to be leaving, the area didn't hold many prospects for the next few days other than cruising the tracks, we were better off with a change of scene. We bade farewell to our fellow guests and a two hour drive saw us arriving in a depopulated town where we were meant to meet another local bird guide who would take us to a good spot for Wryneck.
Mike and I had really built up our expectations as we had been told we had a very good chance of seeing one. Half an hour must have passed before the said guide turned up, and 10 minutes drive later we arrived at the Wryneck nest. In fact there were three within close distance. It had started to rain but we would put up with that to complete our trio of top targets.
It was then we discovered that we only had one bag hide with us . There was a Hoopoe nest not far away so maybe one could go for that while the other sat by the Wryneck. Instead we manoeuvred the car as best we could to get an angle on the nest hole. It was all wrong, even if the bird did come and go the chances were we wouldn't see it. It was raining heavier, we were decidedly cheesed off to discover that our expectations had been dashed at a stroke.
We all know that wildlife does not appear on demand, but information that it had been regularly seen turned out to be totally false. We had arrived ill equipped and it had been a long drive to get there, possibly for nothing. I decided to let Lucky, our guide, have one or two observations including the fact that now he'd brought us to Disneyland the only thing missing was Micky Mouse. He agreed on all my points, in fact he had only started the job that week and so was still learning the ropes. He's a pro wedding photographer by trade but looking for something different. A really nice guy, knows how to look after people but had been given no guidance on this job. It was par for the course.
Reluctantly Mike and I decided we had to abandon any ideas of getting the Wryneck and instead would both head for the Hoopoe. At least there was some possibility of action. I hadn't even bothered with the Hoopoe hide back in Bratsigovo, Mike told me the views were awkward and the chances of a decent shot poor. We arrived at this site and were pleased to see the setting was excellent.
Without hides we had to use the car which in turn had to be parked some distance away.
The overall view at 500mm on a full frame camera looked like this
Hoopoe 500mm
A bit far, so I tried sticking a 1.4TC on the lens to increase the reach to 700mm
Hoopoe 700mm
Not bad but what if I went 2.0x TC
Hoopoe 1000mm
Now that might work for static shots but once you had a couple the challenge was flight.
One of the big disadvantages of a 2.0xTC is the limited focus points offered, in fact only 5 in the middle, finding the bird and focussing in your viewfinder was difficult but I realised the bird was landing on a particular stone then flying a short distance to the nest. Always the same flight pattern, always at equal distance away. I decided to try manual focus, setting the focus on the rocks then locking it.
It worked to a certain extent.
Hoopoe 1000mm
But it proved slightly easier when the bird was flying away from the nest altogether.
The shots are far from perfect but they kept me entertained trying new techniques
Baring in mind that you have to have f8 as a minimum aperture and as the bird 's movement was quick I was shooting at 1/400th of a second and auto ISO was giving me ISO 6400. I had bought my new body, the 1DX, for the superior autofocus of the 5D3 and the higher frame per second rate and here I was using manual focus and the number of shots you could get in at that depth of field was only one or two anyway !
I tried the 1.4TC and auto focus.The same settings and a bigger crop for the final picture.
Not too bad, the light was against us and poor but occasional bursts of sun actually made things more difficult. Still our mood had lifted considerably, we were having fun !
Suddenly we had a Cuckoo arrive at a nearby tree. The light had improved and as it flew around the car the sun was behind us. The fast frame rate and the autofocus systems did their thing and 95% of my shots were pretty well nailed !
Most are at some reasonable distance
The best pose of the lot wasn't quite in focus.
but we had both been wanting this opportunity for a long time.
The day had turned in to a triumph after all the disappointment.
We headed off to our overnight accommodation in good spirits, and they were further raised wham we discovered the guest house we were booked in to was actually a block of three apartments built in the back garden of a house. Very comfortable, an outside table and chairs and Lucky provided us with some chilled beers to celebrate our success.
Best of all, within a short walking distance we found a lively little area of bars and restaurants were we had a hot, and I emphasise hot, and tasty meal. We had made good choices after all.