Part 1 - The Eastern Rhodopi Mountains
After visiting the Bird Fair at Rutland Water in August of 2011 and spending some time chatting to people on the British Bulgarian Society (BBS) stand including Annie Kay and Nick Greatorex-Davies, we decided that a holiday in South Eastern Europe would make a very interesting change with the possibility of Eastern butterflies not to mention Bears or Wolves, however unlikely.
As I'm fairly anti social when filming wildlife we decided to book a trip for just the two of us, Helen and myself, for a whole three weeks with the BBS. The trip included flights to and from Sofia, car hire, hotel accommodation, breakfast and evening meals and most importantly a Bulgarian guide and wildlife expert.
Our guide Assen Ignatov, who had guided for a UKButterflies trip in 2007, was a keen naturalist with an interest in all aspects of wildlife and a definite love of the birds of his home country. Assen spoke excellent English and had a keen eye for both birds and butterflies, helping to spot several interesting species during our trip.
We flew from Heathrow into Sofia on a morning flight on the 23rd June arriving in the early afternoon due to the 2 hour time difference between the two countries. We were met at the airport by Assen and Julia from Explorer 2000 Ltd. who had organised the accommodation and travel arrangements during our holiday. The flights were organised by Ognian Avgarski at Balkania Travel based at Heathrow.
All these people who had organised our holiday were extremely helpful and added to the total enjoyment of visiting Bulgaria.
At this point I'd like to mention Nick Greatorex-Davies who prepared a suggested itinerary based on a wish list of species I wanted to see. He was also extremely helpful in preparing a map showing the places on the itinerary and possible sightings at each of the suggested sites.
After meeting up with a couple of people, who were travelling with Nick and 14 other butterfly enthusiasts on the 10 day butterfly tour, we were transferred to our hotel before heading into Sofia for a snack with Assen and Julia. Later in the evening we met up with them both again for our evening meal in a traditional Bulgarian restaurant. A very pleasant meal with one or two beers at a price of around 80p for a 500 ml bottle.
Before leaving for Bulgaria, I purchased the excellent Lepidapp European Butterfly App for my iPod and spent many hours adding many of my own notes for use in Bulgaria. Of course, I managed to leave it on my desk at home and realising too late I had to make do with my memory instead. The memory being fairly hopeless compared to the great App.
Right then to business. After watching three species of Swifts screaming their way around the tall buildings in the centre of Sofia followed by some football on a very tiny TV in our air conditioned room, we got a reasonable nights sleep and awoke refreshed and ready for a Bulgarian breakfast with proper coffee. Not the weak brown water we drink at home, as Assen called it. I set the day counter with our first full day in Bulgaria as Day 1.
Day 1 - 24th June
Assen picked us up and Julia saw us off on our way. We passed the White Storks nests on the main road out of Sofia as we headed east towards the Eastern Rhodopi Mountains.
We passed by many interesting small villages and very dry looking farmland spotting birds such as White Sork, Black Stork and Roller before making our first stop at one small village named Stoykovo. Here a rough track passed through some farmland beside a field of Sunflowers in one direction whilst in the other direction the track stopped beside a small Bee Eater colony with the birds nesting in a sandy cliff. Unfortunately we couldn't take the car down to the colony to use as a hide as a local farmer had parked a huge old harvester in the middle of the track much to Assens annoyance.
We firstly checked the field edges and some Dwarf Elder beside the track finding Scarce Swallowtail, Queen of Spain Fritillary, Marbled White, Clouded Yellow, Silver Studded Blue, Eastern Bath White, Small Copper and Sooty Copper plus several new species for me that included Lesser Fiery Copper, Sloe Hairstreak and Lesser Spotted Fritillary.
Several birds called from nearby hedgerows and woodland including Black Headed Bunting and Golden Oriole, both common species throughout the holiday.
We walked in the sweltering heat that was in excess of 35 degrees, to the Bee Eater colony where several birds called overhead before settling on some wires above us. A few birds eventually settled in the trees and on the sand cliff whilst we watched. Crested Larks were also evident at this site and could be seen gaping due to the excessive heat.
After filming and photographing the birds we moved on to another spot known to Assen for a couple more interesting species of birds including Olive Tree Warbler and Masked Shrike. In the the small roadside valley at Yerosalimovo we heard and had fleeting glimpses of the Warbler but no shrike except Woodchat Shrike. It was generally a little late in the year for the best birding.
Concentrating on the butterflies we found Brown Argus, Common Blues, Great Banded Grayling, Meadow Brown, Oriental Meadow Brown which was fairly worn, more Lesser Fiery Coppers plus three more new species for me. Eastern Large Heath, Sandy Grizzled Skipper and a fantastic Little Tiger Blue.
This butterfly was fantastic with its black and white tiger striped pattern, long tails waving in the wind and those jewel like pale blue splashes of irridescence on its hindwings, Wow what a stunner.
The final section of the journey wound through some ancient Oak woodlands where we stopped after sighting a huge Long Horned Beetle flying along the road. A Middle Spotted Woodpecker responded to a call from Assens phone, landing in a tree only a few feet away before retreating back into the woods.
The road wound its way down past hedgerows full of birds to a huge lake at the start of the Arda Valley beside the village of Borislavtsi where we were to stay in a small guest house called Thracian House for the next few days.
We walked alongside the lake before arriving at the guest house to partake of several well deserved beers and a wonderful evening meal. The meal was eaten on the veranda outside the front of the guest house looking out towards the lake whilst Pallid Swifts screamed their way around the buildings. We watched the next door neighbour bring in his two cows and a donkey whilst a Grey Heron flew overhead to the sound of a Nightingale singing from the nearby hedgerow.
Day 2 - 25th June
After an extremely hot night in a small room with no air conditioning (a small price to pay as this place was the friendliest nicest place we stayed at) and a superb breakfast on the veranda we headed off to the Arda Valley. Our first stop was at the side of the road by a freshly cut meadow where a Lesser Spotted Eagle was feasting on rodents and lizards easily found in the short cut grass.
We left the eagle and headed across the Arda Valley and up a side valley towards the Greek border along a pot holed road to the Oreshari Meadows. A note of caution, nearly all Bulgarian roads are full of pot holes with drivers using both sides of the road and even the grass verges to avoid the holes.
We parked up along the road at the highest point we were to visit and walked the roadside and the nearby meadows searching out the many butterflies that were present.
This was the normal routine when heading into hilly ground or mountains. Drive to the highest point, then walk and drive back down the road. This made the walking much easier. Along the first stretch of road were many Silver Washed Fritillaries, Cardinals and Marbled whites. In the fields were Scarce Swallowtail, Brown Argus, Silver-Studded Blues with extremely broad dark borders to the upperwing surfaces and a fleeting glimpse of an Eastern Short-Tailed Blue that didn't stop to be filmed or photographed.
Amongst the many Wood Whites along the road were one or two that caught my attention as they had black and brown antennae lacking any pale grey or white, indicating that these were Eastern Wood Whites. Most of these had extremely pale underwings with a distinct lack of markings compared to the Wood Whites that were flying alongside them, that showed slightly more grey markings on the underwings.
We headed back down the road stopping at various spots that just looked promising. This was most areas that were not in the shade with thistles growing in them. Lower down more whites were found including Large White, Small White, Eastern Bath White and the interesting so called Balkan Green-Veined White. This species was similar to Green-Veined White which we never saw on the trip but lacked most of the darkened veins on the underside of the wings showing only a small amount in the center of the hindwings. Information shows this is unlikely a separate species from Green-veined White and maybe should be classed as a Balkan form.
At these roadside stops coppers abounded, with Sooty Copper being the commonest species followed by Small Copper and then Lesser Fiery Copper. Many of the Small Coppers were extremely dark compared to those found at home making them look like a completely different species. This probably explains why Helen took hundreds of photos of this species nearly everywhere we went.
Good numbers of Fritillaries buzzed the thistles and included Dark Green, High Brown and Niobe. Both the High Brown and Niobe were mainly of the forms with very pale underwing patterns. Clouded Yellows were also common along the road.
A few skippers dashed around close to the ground and included one or two Dingy Skippers, Small, Essex and Large Skipper plus another new species for me, Orbed Red Underwing Skipper and a Marbled type Skipper that was not identified.
As we moved lower down the road Great Banded Graylings were seen sitting on the hot road surface and many species of Blues were seen at roadside stops beside more open grassland. These included Common Blue, Adonis Blue, Turquoise Blue and Meleager's Blue.
Our final stop along the road was at a water trough in the shade on a sharp bend. These water troughs are numerous along the Bulgarian roads and normally have flowing water from a pipe into, as many as five troughs. These troughs were popular with various amphibians as there was guaranteed water all year round. At this particular stop were Marsh Frogs and Yellow-Bellied Toads.
The main attraction here were two Camberwell Beauties sitting on the edge of the road. One of which became attracted to the car number plate. This is a species I saw once in Britain as a child at Gibraltar Point Nature Reserve close to Skegness, where a very worn individual flew into the window of the bird observatory there, so this was a special treat for me and Helen.
We next visited the Arda Complex Hotel for a quick sit in the shade with a drink (beer of course) and something to eat, whilst a Green Lizard wandered past us along the wall. We admired the many butterflies nectaring in the grasses below us alongside the river including Eastern Festoons and Scarce Swallowtails.
After resting for a while in the shade we headed back across the Arda river to walk alongside it and look for Freyer's Purple Emperor fabled to be present here. We had no luck with the Freyer's but had close encounters with many Eastern Festoons plus Marbled Fritillary, Queen of Spain Fritillary and an interesting array of Bush Crickets that have been a nightmare to identify due to the lack of literature on these insects in Southern Europe.
Other butterflies found beside the river were Small Heath, Pearly Heath, Red Admiral, Peacock, Comma, Meadow Brown, Speckled Wood, Southern White Admiral and Lesser Spotted Fritillary which was new for me on this trip.
We ventured in a different direction along the riverside road finding an Antlion larva, a Red-rumped Swallows nest under a bridge, a Broad Bodied Chaser Dragonfly and a Black Stork fishing in the shallows of the river that I managed to sneak up on and film.
We stopped off along the road on the way back to our guest house below the rocks where the local vultures are to be found, looking for Krueper's Small White. No luck here but on the rocks and over head were Black-eared Wheatear, Blue Rock Thrush and plenty of Griffon Vultures and Egyptian Vultures coming back down to earth after a day in the skies.
Day 3 - 26th June
Our third day was spent again in the Arda Valley, this time along the Valley itself. We stopped to watch our friend the Lesser Spotted Eagle in the field again before another stop below the vultures breeding site, high on the rocks above the road. We walked a good way along the road below the rocks, again looking for and not finding Krueper's Small White. We found many butterflies seen on the previous day, but also Holly Blue and White Letter Hairstreak plus our only Duke of Burgundy of the holiday, a tatty female nectaring in a bramble bush.
Below the vulture rocks we found our first Balkan Marbled White settled on a grass stem beside the road with its wings closed followed by our second Little Tiger Blue.
After filming Eastern Bath Whites in a meadow beside the road and checking out the Bulgarian form of Lizard Orchid we ventured a little further along the road to walk beside the river. Here it was extremely hot and dry with less butterflies in evidence in the strong mid day heat. However, we spent some time watching the pincer tailed dragonflies whose english name is the Green-eyed Hooktail.
we next visited the Vulture Centre close by and settled down for a beer and salad in the shade whilst admiring the views over the river. A single Woodland Grayling was photographed sitting on the concrete floor of the cafe and a dark looking Bush Cricket was moved from the concrete onto a tree trunk to be filmed. This was later identified as an Alpine Dark Bush Cricket.
After our snack we headed through the gold rush town of Madzharavo. This is a town of new roads and huge blocks of flats built when there was a recent gold rush in the area. Due to possibly a lack of gold and the mining being banned due to unsafe mines the town now has a population of only around 200 people and is quite deserted.
On the far side of the town we headed back down to the river finding a patch of flowers with many butterflies including some stunning Lesser Fiery Coppers and another Balkan Green-veined White. There were also many Black-veined Whites and some stunning Eastern Festoons present.
During our walk along the river we noted Southern Small White mud puddling with Small White and Wood White whilst several Green Lizards and a single Balkan Green Lizard basked on rocks beside our path.
There were plenty more Green-eyed Hooktails hawking for insects along the edge of the river and a Little Ringed Plover was also found feeding along a still stretch of water.
On the way back we took a detour down a steep track below the Vulture rocks to the river in the hope of finding some wildlife. However, locals were having a picnic and were taking cars along the track preventing us from seeing anything much due to disturbance. A cormorant flew along the river, a Herman's Tortoise ambled along the riverside path and Banded Demoiselles busied themselves along the edge of the river.
It suddenly began to rain and without my camera bag my gear was in danger of suffering from the damp so we headed back to the car, where a Red-backed Shrike sat in a bramble bush, posing for photos before we headed off for our evening meal.
Day 4 - 27th June
On day 4 we travelled a little further to the area around the village of Studen Kladenets and its nearby reservoirs. Our first stop was close to the Vulture feeding point up in the hills. We sat in the car for some time observing the area as Vultures and even wolves have been known to visit the feeding site. Unfortunately no one was using the hide and there were no fresh carcasses put out to attract the scavengers.
We therefore left the car and had a walk around the extremely dry hillsides where we immediately discovered a huge adult Antlion Palpares libelluloides in the sparse vegetation. This was quite an impressive creature being around four or five inches in length.
As I was taking a call of nature Assen shouted out as he had spotted a group of falcons consisting of four Eleonora's with a Saker Falcon tagging along. By the time I arrived they had moved some distance away but luckily the Saker flew back along the valley in front of us giving me good views of a bird I had never seen before. A large group of vultures were flying high in the sky whilst closer to our position a Long-legged Buzzard hunted over the woods on the hillside.
We moved our eyes back into butterfly mode watching the ground. Butterflies were fairly scarce in the dry landscape which contained many of the huge White-faced Bush Crickets. However, we did manage to find some worn Balkan Marbled Whites, Eastern Bath Whites, a single Sandy Grizzled Skipper and a rather interesting butterfly that resembled a female blue. It had a slightly crippled wing but was identified as an Anomalous Blue. A second individual was found that was in excellent condition. This butterfly received slightly more attention than its deformed companion. These were a species I'd never seen before.
We reversed our tracks and headed back down the hillside watching for butterflies along the way. A few Great Banded Graylings sat on the road and close to a gypsy village Isabelline Wheatears had raised a family and the young fed along the roadside.
After passing through some major roadworks we parked up at the highest point of the village of Studen Kladenets and walked along some rocky paths until we eventually came out into two lightly grazed meadow areas of short grasses with thistles. The first of these had plentiful amounts of butterflies including many common fritillaries, Brimstone, Clouded Yellows and a single dark orange Clouded Yellow that was not identified. A Painted Lady hid down in the vegetation avoiding the glare of the sun and one or two Oberthurs Grizzled Skippers buzzed around alighting on the grass or low growing plants.
The next field contained damp ground where Assen found some dragonflies which turned out to be what I think was Southern Migrant Hawker.
Whilst he attempted to gain some flight shots of the dragonflies, Helen and I investigated a water trough at the edge of the field. Here we found more Yellow-bellied Toads whilst blues and coppers took on water, spilled from the troughs.
After watching a Tree Frog disappear into the undergrowth Helen shouted as she found a huge Bush Cricket. I mistakenly picked it up to let her photograph it in my hand to show the size of the insect. Assen later informed us that it was a predatory species and could have bitten me. I looked it up on the internet at home to discover it was the predatory Bush Cricket Saga natoliae, the largest species of orthopteran in Europe. This monster was amazing to watch as it walked in a similar manner to a chameleon swaying backwards and forwards as it walked.
We wandered over to find Assen and have a crack at the dragonflies in flight. Around the damper areas were a single Weaver's Fritillary and what appeared to be a freshly emerged Scarce Blue-tailed Damselfly.
We next wandered along another path onto slightly higher ground alongside a stream shaded with large trees. From the path we saw a group of Fallow Deer that sped off up the hillside on seeing us.
Beside the stream was a large Damselfly that was dark blue and as large as most darter dragonflies. This was an Odalisque. Many other dragonflies abounded along the stream that even contained freshwater crabs.
Whilst heading back to the car we kept a close eye out for Krueper's Small White as this was a renowned area for this species. Again we had no luck and I was beginning to think that I was destined not to see this butterfly. The last things we saw before reaching the car were a large Erhard's Wall Lizard Lizard an Orbed Red Underwing Skipper and an Oriental Marbled Skipper.
That evening Julia of Explorer 2000 Ltd. our ground agent had arranged for the couple who owned Thracian House to get Helen a Birthday Cake as it was her 30th birthday. We all tucked into a huge birthday cake that night which had a huge sparkler candle on it. We managed a couple of beers as well of course to celebrate. It would have been rude not to.
Day 5 - 28th June
On the 28th we left Thracian House and the Eastern Rhodopi Mountains after saying goodbye to the owners who had been fantastic hosts and headed towards Cherven to the south of Plovdiv. Cherven stands on the northern edge of the Western Rhodopi Mountains. We made several stops along the way with sightings of more Lesser Spotted Eagles and a light phase Booted Eagle.
In the large town of Kardjali, after stopping for coffee, Assen enquired if we would like to see Pygmy cormorant as he knew a good spot in the town. We obviously thought this was a good idea and Assen turned over a large road bridge pointing out a small wetland area beside a large reservoir. He parked the car and gave us directions to get to this area from the bridge.
Please continue to hover mouse over images to reveal names
It was a stunning site right in the middle of the town. There were nesting Pygmy Cormorants, Little Egrets, loads of Night Herons and a few shy Little Bitterns showed themselves.
The reeds themselves were full of dragonflies including the superb bright red Scarlet Darters and a new species for me, the White-tailed Skimmer which really has a black tail with a small white tip.
We eventually dragged ourselves away from the wetland with socks full of painful grass seeds and headed back to Assen in the car and to our next stop.
Our first butterfly stop of the day, after spotting various Shrikes and Buntings beside the road in the farmland, was at a stream approximately 20 km east of Cherven. We headed into the shade of some trees that lined the banks of a small stream after checking out Sooty, Small and Lesser Fiery Copper plus Sloe and Brown Hairstreak.
Many butterflies were found mud puddling on the damp ground beside the stream including Silver Washed Fritillary and Camberwell Beauty.
Along the stream were displaying Beautiful Demoiselles and fast moving Green-eyed Hooktail dragonflies.
Just before reaching Cherven Assen headed uphill to a place called Sini Vrah which translated into Blue Peak. The pot holed road which led to a mountain hut was well wooded along its length with a few open areas especially close to the hut at the top of the road.
We stopped off at various points along the road adding several butterfly species to the days list that included Spotted Fritillary and Heath Fritillary. Male and female Mazarine Blue, Purple Shot Copper, Dingy Skipper and what I think was Tufted Marbled Skipper were also found along the roadside in the more wooded areas.
We arrived at our hotel in Cherven for a wash and brush up before heading for the Dianah Hotel for our evening meal. The use of a second hotel for meals was because the main butterfly tour led by Nick Greatorex-Davies were staying there. We met up with the group after our meal chatting with Nick and the renowned wildlife artist Richard Lewington who was on the tour.
Day 6 - 29th June
We spent the whole of day 6 close to the village of Dobrostan both below and above it. Our first stop was directly below the village along the road. There were masses of large thistles and beds of Viper's Bugloss lining the roadside and in turn these were full of butterflies. The first thing to hit you on leaving the car were the numbers of Apollos nectaring on the thistles. Admittedly they were large thistle heads but some had as many as five Apollos on a single flower head.
Other large butterflies included Scarce Swallowtail, Silver Washed Fritillaries and many Cardinals. Smaller Fritillaries were also abundant and included Dark Green, Niobe, Knapweed or possibly Eastern Knapweed, Marbled, Spotted, Queen of Spain and finally the smallest being Weaver's Fritillary.
There were plenty of whites, including Black-veined in large numbers, feeding on the Bugloss. Clouded Yellows were also in evidence and included a Berger's Clouded Yellow. These were difficult to film or photograph due to the speed they were moving around at.
I took a short walk down hill along the road, away from the grassy areas we had originally stopped at, into a more wooded area and found our first Twin Spot Fritillaries of the trip. These were in mint condition.
Good numbers of blues were found beside the road with Common Blue and Silver Studded Blue being the commonest. However, I think Balkan Zephyr Blues were also present.
A few black and yellow insects were seen flying quickly around with the butterflies and once settled were instantly identified as Ascalaphids. These small dragonfly shaped insects with long club ended antennae were later identified as Libelloides macaronius.
We drove through the village of Dobrostan to check out the grassy meadows above, where butterflies were again found along the roadside. Here were many Chestnut Heaths feeding beside the road alongside Glanville and Heath Fritillaries.
At one point there was a large muddy slightly damp puddle in the middle of the road where masses of Blues had gathered to puddle. Joining these were more Heath Fritillaries and a Great Sooty Satyr decided Helens leg was more appetizing than the mud (no comment).
In the following picture all are probably Plebejus Blues. The smallest butterflies appear to have no silver studs and could be Balkan Zephyr Blue. The medium sized butterflies are almost definitely Silver-studded Blues with extremely wide upperside dark wing edges, whilst the largest worn individuals could be Reverdin's Blue with less than sagitate dark markings inside the orange sub marginal band on the underside of the wings. Comments welcome as always.
This stretch of road above the village was good for roadside birds including Northern Wheatear, Red-backed Shrike, Corn Bunting and Ortolan Bunting. Most of these were feeding young, moving backwards and forwards to nest sites with beaks full of crickets and other insects.
We headed a little higher up the road to a T junction where we parked up and ate our packed lunch of bread, sausage and cheese with large tomatos under the shade of a roadside shelter.
Something someone had spilt here was attracting lots of butterflies including Amanda's Blue, Nickerl's Fritillary and our first Yellow-banded Skipper of the holiday. When this great looking skipper turned up I was gob smacked at the size of it. I was expecting something the size of most of the other grizzled skippers. This beast was huge.
Helen and I wandered around the tarmac sections of the road finding various species including more Nickerl's Fritillaries and some more fresh looking Twin Spot Fritillaries.
Assen had wandered off along a cart track which entered the woods at the end of the T junction and came back to inform us he'd seen a Poplar Admiral. On hearing this we headed off up the track to have a look. We first encountered a rather worn looking Woodland Ringlet which settled as the sun disappeared behind a cloud. Opposite on the other side of the path another huge Yellow-banded Skipper hit the foliage along with everything else while the sun hid. It didn't last and the sun soon reappeared along with the clouds of resting butterflies that launched themselves back into the air.
Further along the track we found the puddles where Assen had discovered the Admiral but it had left the area. We did however, find several Pearl-bordered Fritillaries nectaring beside the path whilst a Blue-spot Hairstreak mud puddled on it.
We headed back towards the car when suddenly a huge butterfly buzzed us, circling our position a couple of times before heading off over the trees. It was a huge female Poplar Admiral. As we wandered back along the track we came across another species of dragonfly, a member of the snaketail family with the English name of Green Clubtail, Ophiogomphus cecilia.
On the way back for tea we stopped again below Dobrostan finding more Apollos and a nice female Valezina form Silver-washed Fritillary plus more Great Sooty Satyrs. We enjoyed our evening meal with Richard Lewington and his friend Tony who joined our table.
Day 7 - 30th June
We ended our first full week in Bulgaria with a visit to a rock formation known as the Wonderful Bridges. The archways through the rock are apparently where the stream had caused the softer rock to collapse leaving the harder marble remains behind to form large natural bridges. In the shade growing out of crevices in the rock were an endemic Bulgarian plant Haberlea rhodopensis which was on my list of things to see. There were only a few specimens left as it was late in the season for them and most had now dried up in the incredible heat the country was currently experiencing.
Butterflies here included Chestnut Heath, Small Tortoiseshell and what I presume was Large Ringlet with chequered wing edges. However, there was little or no white on the underside of the hindwing of these butterflies. I can only assume the Bulgarian form of Large Ringlet is mostly lacking in the white colouration of the hindwing underside in the males. The lack of any real white centres to the black spots on the wings made me discount Arran Brown.
There were several large slugs and snails in the damp areas around the water and we managed to find our first two Clouded Apollos which were unfortunately a little on the worn side and had probably been on the wing for some time.
Back at the car park after a quick snack with the Bulgarian tourists who had come to admire the geological formations we found some large looking Blues that turned out to be Alcon Blue.
We made several stops along the road as we headed back towards the Cepelarska River. Mud puddling Blues included Amanda's, Mazarine and Escher's whilst many Heath and smaller numbers of Knapweed Fritillaries were found alonside them. At one roadside stop several Wood Whites were found and one had very grey veins on the hindwing and the shape of the forewing appeared different to many of the others and could have been a Fenton's Wood White. Again comments welcome.
Other species seen were Orbed Red Underwing Skipper, Tufted Marbled Skipper and Southern White Admiral.
On reaching the main road beside the Cepelarska river we found a suitable parking spot and walked along a gravel track past a field and down beside the river. The first thing that struck me was a Lime Tree that was in flower and was covered in butterflies nectaring on the blooms, mainly Silver-washed Fritillaries. I counted at least 7 valezina females in the tree which gives an idea of the overall numbers of this species present. There were also a few White Admirals and Great Banded Graylings up in the tree.
Along the edge of the track we found a territorial Map Butterfly launching itself at passers by and also a slightly worn and very lonesome male Orange Tip. Could this have been a second brood individual? Whilst watching the Orange Tip a small blue landed close by. This turned out to be a Short-tailed Blue.
As I was filming what I think was possbly Erhard's Wall Lizard on some old dead bushes and unfortunately plastic bags, Helen asked me to have a look at a photo she'd taken, thinking it was something we'd seen before. It definitely wasn't. It was a Ripart's Anomalous Blue, which we luckily relocated mud puddling beside the river. A Plebejus Blue didn't quite look right for Silver-studded and was, I think, a female Reverdin's Blue.
Assen wandered down to meet us a little later on and suddenly became quite excited looking up into the Lime Tree shouting Freyer's Purple Emperor. At first we couldn't see it and it flew off over the tree. However, as we wandered off again, the Freyer's Purple Emperor flew past us and off round the corner of the river, giving good but brief flight views. A fitting end to a good day.
Day 8 - 1st July
Day 8 was another travel day but before we left we attended the moth traps set up by the butterfly tour group. We left our hotel around 6-30 in the morning and headed for the Dianah Hotel back yard where a moth trap had been left overnight. The first moth to greet us on a wall was a wondeful Oak Hawk Moth but there were many more in the trap and sitting around on the walls. We even found the caterpillars of Southern and Eastern Festoon butterflies.
After inspecting the moths we ate breakfast and collected out gear from our hotel at the other end of the town and packed the car to leave. As we got to the bottom of the stairs a beautiful Green Toad was sat on the steps, which I duly filmed before we left.
We left Cherven, heading west towards Plovdiv before turning south to Dospat where our next hotel was situated. Our first stop along the way was the Bessaparski Hills. These were low lying and extremely dry hills. The sound of Crested and Calandra Larks could be heard in the hills along with the ever present Black Headed Buntings. A female Ortolan Bunting also put in an appearence with a huge beak full of food for her young. This was also one of the few places where we encountered Lesser Grey Shrike.
A few extremely colourful green and almost white Lizards with dark streaks along their backs scuttled through the dry grasses. These were Balkan Wall Lizards and were possibly the most attractive of the lizards we encountered.
As we wandered through the parched landscape we found a few butterflies including Silver-studded Blues, Dingy Skipper and our first Hermit which was a male nectaring on a large Thistle.
We headed back to our trusty car and the air conditioning as the temperature was now heading for 40 and walking in these temperatures with lots of photographic gear is no fun. We headed for the hills around the towns of Pestera and Batak beside the huge Batak Reservoir. Here the temperature was a little more bearable at the slightly elevated altitude and the scenery a little greener.
At the first stop above Pestera Town We spent a little time wandering through the open areas between the pine trees and found Woodland and Large Ringlets along with Pearl-bordered and our only Small Pearl-bordered Fritillaries of the trip. There were many beautiful flowers amongst the grasses on which Chestnut Heaths were nectaring.
Over the far side of the road from where we parked the car I found a small Ringlet that showed a pale greyish under hindwing when it settled. This was our first Ottoman Brassy Ringlet. I managed some video but It didn't really settle where it was possible to obtain any decent photographs. however, this was a species we would encounter in much larger numbers at higher altitude on several occasions.
We stopped again along the road, which was at this point a gravel track with many a pot holes due to the road works. Around the town of Batak butterflies included Eastern Large Heath and another new species, the Balkan Copper. This species is the eastern counterpart of the Purple-edged Copper and can have a beautiful splash of violet purple along the edge of the wings in fresh specimens. These were a gorgeous butterfly especially when compared to the Swiss Purple-edged coppers we saw the previous year which don't have the purple edging to the wings. Plenty of other species were encountered along the way including many Fritillaries, Blues plus Apollo and several Marbled Skipper species to be identified from video later, although I was beginning to get the hang of these interesting skippers.
We arrived at the Dabrash Hotel on the hillside above Dospat with its swimming pool set in some excellent looking grassland, where Pallid Swifts and Crag Martins hawked for insects to feed to their yougsters in the nests that were plastered to the hotel walls.
Day 9 - 2nd July
The 2nd July was spent along the scenic Trigrad Gorge searching for the elusive Wallcreeper along with the butterflies that were on offer there.
We arrived at the Gorge around nine in the morning as it was reasonably close to the hotel and Assen dropped us off at a small parking spot where we climbed over the safety barrier and stood below the nesting site of the Wallcreepers.
Assen parked the car further up the road and walked back down to our position. We stood and waited. I filmed a couple of Crag Martins that had settled on the cliffs over the far side of the Gorge.
We waited some more whilst admiring the scenery up and down the Gorge and listening to a Black Woodpecker calling from the trees over the far side. We waited for a little longer, again admiring the Gorge as the sun moved round and a Common Rosefinch called from further up the valley.
All the time we spent waiting we could here the eerie flutey whistle of a Wallcreeper echoing along the Gorge but not once did any of the birds come to the nest site above our position. We assumed that either the birds had failed to breed this year or the young had already fledged and were being fed elsewhere.
Suddenly a flash of grey black and red alerted us to a Wallcreeper as it flew close behind our position then over to the far side of the Gorge. This was the only view we had of this wonderful male Wallcreeper as it climbed the cliff face extracting insects from the Haberlea plants and crevices amongst the rocks over the far side of the Gorge. It eventually flew down the Gorge and back onto our side going much higher until it went out of site. Although we spent a total of three or more hours stood in the shade in the Gorge it was worthwhile for only my second sighting of Wallcreeper albeit twice in the last two years.
We walked up the road to the car park and headed out of the Gorge further up the valley through Trigrad village onto some grassland at the side of the road. Here Assen spent some time chatting with the old couple who owned the land. They appeared not to mind at all as we wandered around their small fields full of flowers and butterflies. Here were Large Blue, Common Blue and Meleager's Blue in one field plus Lesser Spotted, Knapweed and Freyer's Fritillary, which, unfortunately flew off after being identified before any photos or video could be obtained.
I spent some time filming a male Black Redstart singing from the top of a derelict building before walking along the nearby stream. Here were many interesting plants and several Pearly Heath butterflies. On the walk back to the car, a butterfly with an additional cell spot, didn't quite look right for Common Blue. The upperside colour appeared too silvery and metallic. On closer inspection it could only be False Eros Blue.
We headed back down the road towards the village, photographing a young Black Redstart along the way, until a large Grayling was sighted on the road. Here we stopped and began walking the road whilst Assen found a safe parking spot. By the time we reached Assen he was busy photographing mud puddling butterflies on the road. These included Meleager's Blue, Turquoise Blue, Common Blue, Escher's Blue and at least two Ripart's Anomalous Blues.
One more 30 minute stop at the Wallcreeper site drew a blank so we headed back down the Gorge to find a family of Dippers and Southern White and White Admirals beside the river.
Our final stop was to walk along a small side valley where apparently the last Saker Falcon nest in Bulgaria had been raided by an unscrupulous person to collect either the eggs or young. It was still possible to see the home made ladder used to climb up the cliff face to the nest site. What a shame.
Some interesting butterflies were found along this short walk including another Orange Tip, many Blues, an Arran Brown caught by a Crab Spider and our only Cleopatra of the trip. We also had some excellent views of a broad-bordered Bee Hawk Moth as it nectared alongside the slightly larger Hummingbird Hawk Moths.
We had planned to check out the grassland around our hotel that afternoon but by the time we returned from the Gorge it was too late so we decided to have a walk around the hotel area the following morning before breakfast.
Day 10 - 3rd July
We headed down the Dabrash hotel road back towards the main road at around seven in the morning with Serins and Yellowhammers singing from the bushes and trees around us. There was very little butterfly activity but this was probably due to the fact that we had woken before they had. The first butterfly we found beside the road was a very sleepy Wood White.
We reached the main road at the bottom of the hill without seeing another single butterfly and after filming a feeding Serin I wandered through the grasses disturbing masses of crickets and grasshoppers but no butterflies. However, as it warmed up a few skippers began to appear including Small and Essex Skipper. They were soon followed by a Glanville Fritillary, wings outstretched, as it warmed itself in the early morning sunshine. Next on the scene were Balkan Coppers showing the bright orange, purple and black colours in the sun.
In a boggy area beside the track were more coppers, this time bright orange Scarce Coppers occasionally showing their distinctive white spots on the underside of the wings. I was so engrossed in filming these I wasn't watching where I was treading and ended up in some extremely smelly black boggy mud. It soon dried as the temperature began to soar up the scale though.
We ventured along a track into a more wooded area where Heaths and browns were to be found. Meadow Browns were common as they sat in the dappled sunlight alongside Knapweed and Heath Fritillaries. Here we also found a Large Skipper, several Black-veined Whites and Silver-studded and Escher's Blue.
After a couple of hours walking and significantly increased temperatures we were ready for our breakfast and morning shot of extra strong Espresso coffee. We then left the Dabrash Hotel and again headed west towards Gotse Delchev where we were staying next. Gotse Delchev lies close to the Greek border in the southern section of the Mesta Valley. The River Mesta runs between the Eastern Rhodopi and Pirin Mountains. Our hotel was situated close to the banks of the River.
Assen had planned a detour close to the Greek border and here we were stopped by the Bulgarian border guards to have our passports checked before we reached the village of Paril. The border villages were extremely quiet as the end of communist rule in Bulgaria saw many people leave the border areas as there was no work for them.
We wandered along small hedged tracks through the village and out into the hillside. Once past the village we found a large puddle in one of the ruts of the track where many butterflies were seeking water. There were many skippers including Sandy Grizzled Skipper, what I think was Large Grizzled Skipper and our first Silver Spotted Skipper. Like some of the Small and Essex Skippers, the Silver-spotted Skipper was in superbly fresh condition.
Amongst the Blues here was a Small Blue, quite a rarity for this holiday unlike in Switzerland where they were everywhere. A Mallow Skipper and Great Banded Grayling joined the crowds at the puddle as we continued our walk in temperatures of around 40 degrees.
As we wandered in the dry hills we could see an old fence line that was at some point considered to be a border line but the actual border was at the top of the mountains. Assen infomed us that the Greek hunters would illegally cross the border to hunt Bulgarian wildlife such as Bears and Wolves that still roamed these border areas. Quite probably because they'd already shot everything their side of the border.
As we climbed the hillside into the shade of some trees a loud noise was heard in the undergrowth giving us all a start as we'd just been talking about Bears and Wolves, but nothing was seen. At this point we turned around and headed back to the village but several yards down the path Assen discovered an Anomalous Blue that I identified as a Grecian Anomalous Blue. This seemed quite an appropriate place to find one as we were less than a mile from the Greek border. It managed to elude being photographed or filmed and was one to catch up with at a later date.
A few very dark Large Blues were noticed on the downhill journey and just before reaching a shady stream we found a pair of Anomalous Blues, unfortunately not the Grecian variety. There were many animal footprints in the mud besdie the stream including deer of one sort or another and some large canine prints that could have been a large dog or possibly those of wolves coming down for a drink.
Back in the village we ate our sandwiches purchased at the petrol station and re-hydrated with coke or fizzy lemon beer that was a great thirst quencher, whilst we watched Tree Sparrows building a nest in the top of a telegraph post and Red-rumped Swallows and House Martins sitting on the wires.
We spent some time in the nearby area along the road towards Nova Lovcha looking for Dil's Grayling amongst the rocks. We found Eastern Pale Clouded Yellow and Clouded Yellow plus my first and only Large Tortoiseshell that mud puddled for 2 seconds before being bombed by a Great Banded Grayling that scared it away never to be seen again. Whilst walking around watching Southern Skimmers some very loud growling sounds were heard but nothing was seen and I assume that it was a local sheep dog or a feral animal.
Many butterflies were seeking shade due to the relentless heat but we did eventually find some Graylings. These were either Hermits or Great Banded Graylings. There were no signs of Dil's Grayling unfortunately, which is a very rare and local species being found only in a few isolated spots either side of the border.
We headed back to our hotel as we were all feeling hungry. However, some White Storks feeding close to the road forced us to stop and film or photograph before continuing on our way.
Day 11 - 4th July
We were now half way through our holiday and so far it had been excellent. We were now heading for some higher mountains and today was a trip to Orelek high up in the southern reaches of the Pirin Mountains to an area close to a radio mast. It was on the way up to this area that I spotted my second new species of bird for the holiday. A Rock Partridge stood on the track we were following sufficiently long enough for everyone to see in their binoculars. However, as we moved towards the bird it disappeared into some Dwarf Elder and was not seen again.
After a long haul up the mountain we eventually neared the top by the mast and almost as soon as we arrived Assen shouted that he had found our quarry for the day. It was a male Bosnian Blue as it was called in certain books but as we were not in Bosnia I'll use its other name of Balkan Blue. This species is very similar to the Gavarnie Blue found in the Pyrenees and I think I read somewhere that the Balkan Blue was originally thought to be a sub species of the Gavarnie Blue.
The nearest species I've seen was the Glandon Blue in the Swiss Alps. The male Balkan Blue has a silvery blue upperside with large triangular cell spots on each wing. The underside has a single orange and blueish lunule and spot with various white and black spots completing the unusual look of this species.
The next butterfly we found was a female Balkan Blue which appeared to be egg laying. The females have a bronzed brown upperwing with the large cell spots being more obvious on the forewing. The underside of the wings is fairly similar to that of the males, maybe with a more brown ground colour.
After finding separate male and female we then found a copulating pair sitting on a rock presenting a good photo opportunity.
At the top of the mountain we also found many Eastern Large Heaths including a pair in cop. Other species included Small White, Turquoise Blue, Ottoman Brassy Ringlet and Brimstone. The latter I thought was unusual to find at around 2000 metres up a mountain.
We began the long trek back down the mountain stopping along the track from time to time to look at patches of flowers and the associated butterflies. At one point close to a group of shepherds with their huge dogs we found an aberrant Balkan Copper, Silver-studded Blue, various Fritillaries, Painted Lady and a species of Anomalous Blue. These butterflies were similar to Ripart's Anomalous Blue but had a white edge to the upper hindwing which is brown in Ripart's. These butterflies were Higgin's Anomalous Blues, a species often found above the tree line according to the literature and we were still a fair way above the tree line.
We continued to work our way down the mountainside finding many more Ottoman Brassy Ringlets and on one corner of the track I found a female Blue that was really tiny. It appeared similar to the Silver-studded Blue females but had a large amount of orange on the underside right to the tip of its wings, which made me think it may have been Reverdin's Blue, although we may have been too high up for this species. The white band inside the orange now makes me think this was just a small brightly coloured Silver-studded Blue. I noticed that the females often had larger expanses of orange especially on the upper wings when compared to the males of this species.
At this point a lone small Fritillary alighted on a Hawkweed and I think it was possibly a Shepherd's Fritillary. Other butterflies of note were a Mountain Small White and what appeared to be an Eastern Dappled White, both managing to avoid the cameras. We saw masses of different Blues including Mazarine, Amanda's, Small, Large, Mountain Alcon, Common Blue and Adonis Blue. Other Fritillaries included Queen of Spain, Niobe, Silver-washed, Dark Green, Lesser Spotted and Heath.
Various Clouded Yellows, Scarce Swallowtail and Apollo graced our path at different altitudes plus Woodland Ringlet and Great Sooty Satyr were found.
We had a fabulous day high up in the Pirin Mountains finding many interesting butterflies and many birds that included Hobby, Whinchat, Ring Ouzel and Dunnock which is a mountain species in Bulgaria.
Possibly the most memorable note of the day was a Small Tortoiseshell that befriended me and hitched a ride on my arm for a significant time as we walked down the mountain.
Day 12 - 5th July
On Day 12 we left Gotse Delchev and made our way even further west towards Sandanski on the south western edge of the Pirin mountains. Before we left however, we visited an old fish farm just across the road from our hotel beside the banks of the river Mesta to look for Freyer's Purple Emperor as we had only had a fleeting glimpse of this butterfly previously.
Assen parked the car beside the old fish farm lake that was now reedy around the edge and a haven for wildlife including many dragonflies. Great Reed Warblers could be heard singing from the reeds and three species of woodpeckers fed in the trees around the lake, Great Spotted, Syrian and Middle Spotted.
We walked along the eastern edge of the lake between a stream and the lake itself and ended up beside the river at a spot Assen knew was good for the Emperor in question. There was no sign as we stood and watched the trees for 20 minutes or more. We walked along the bank between the River Mesta and the fishing lake finding many dragonflies but no Emperors. Dejectedly we turned and headed back towards the car stopping briefly to check out the trees in the butterflies favoured area. Assen raised our hopes with a shout there was something in the tree but on arriving I saw it was only a Comma.
I noticed something moving higher up in the tree. It was a large pale butterfly slowly flapping its wings. On looking through the binoculars I knew it was a Freyer's Purple Emperor. We watched as it opened and closed its wings eventually keeping them closed due to the intense heat that was building up.
In the same tree below a pair of mating Common Clubtail Dragonflies sat oblivious of our excitement. On the way back to the car after the Emperor had flown off we spotted a second Freyer's Purple Emperor sitting closer to the path than the previous specimen. I managed some video of this one with my standard lens and didin't require the big 400mm lens this time. What a fantastic start to the day.
We left Gotse Delchev and eventually found ourselves stopping off beside a meadow on the Popovi Livadi Pass. The meadow Assen wished to show us was partly fenced off with horses in it, so we walked the unfenced area finding some intresting orchids and a single Large Blue.
Assen took us along a short track down to a bridge over a small stream on the edge of a pine wood. Whilst we watched the mud puddling butterflies beside the stream Helen and Assen noticed several butterflies landing on the track that headed into the woods. Assen remarked that this was one we wanted to see. On closer inspection the so called long noses of these butterflies could clearly be seen, identifying them as Nettle Tree Butterflies.
Some of them eventually alighted beside the stream to take a drink of water with the blues that were already there. Amongst the Blues were Escher's, Common, Chapman's, Turquoise and Higgin's Anomalous Blue. The latter identified with the kind help of Nikolay Shtinkov.
The Nettle Tree Butterflies were an equal mix of both sexes. A male came down to drink first showing the brown and pale grey markings on the underside of the hindwing. The next butterfly was a female with a hindwing of plain rusty brown.
We stayed here for a while filming and photographing the butterflies before heading back to the relief of the air conditioning, a sandwhich and more lemon beer.
After heading over the top of the pass on the downhill section through some very dry shrubby open countryside we stopped for a quick walk in the heat. There were very few butterflies around as it was intensely hot but larger species such as Marbled White, Balkan Marbled White and Cardinal were present.
Before we headed for our next hotel we hit the countryside above the village of Ilindentci to look for Dil's Grayling again. Firstly after parking in a field Assen led us down a small track down to a shaded stream then up the other side. There were very few butterflies of note here except for Holly Blue, Small Heath and White-letter Hairstreak. Along the stream and in the hedgerows were many Golden Ringed Dragonflies. The ones I managed to identify from photos and film all appeared to be the Balkan Golden Ringed Dragonfly but Assen seemed to think that the Two Toothed Goldenring was also here.
One other animal of interest we found along the track were more Yellow-bellied Toads that seemed to be fairly common in Bulgaria in many places where there was water.
We walked back to the car very slowly as the heat had hit 42 this particular day and was taking its toll, certainly on me. Further up the road we stopped and I noticed a Grayling fly into the tree we had parked under. No decent views and thus no identification. Helen and Assen were in front of me when I spotted a butterfly I had been searching for all holiday, a Krueper's Small White, with its triangular patches along the costa of its wings. Whilst filming this from some distance Helen and Assen had found a Grayling, unfortunately when I arrived it was only a Hermit and I had lost the Krueper's Small White.
We admired the surrounding landscape as the sun began to fade and watched some huge Scoliid wasps nectaring on the roadside bushes before heading off for food and rest.
Day 13 - 6th July
On the 6th July we headed off in the morning of our thirteenth day to a marble quarry in the hills of the south west of Bulgaria, again extremely close to the Greek border. The quarry is between the villages of Goleshevo and Petrovo along the Petrovska River Valley in the northern Part of Slavyanka (Alibotush) Mountain. The plan was to head to the marble quarry and then work our way back down the road along the stream in the centre of the valley.
The marble quarry was now disused with huge chunks of the stone lying around on the ground where it had been hewn from the hillside ready to be carved and taken away. Now colourfull plants grew up alongside the gleaming white stone making for a very bright spectacle that made you screw your eyes up in the bright sunshine.
There were hundreds of Blues in the area, mostly Silver-studded but also a few Common, possible Idas, Large, Meleager's and our first Chalkhill Blue of the trip. Other species included Sandy Grizzled Skipper, Clouded Yellow, Eastern Bath White, Ilex Hairstreak and another new species, Balkan Grayling. This is so similar to Delattin's Grayling genital examination is required for a positive identification, so I gave them the name of the commonest of the two, but really they should be Balkan / Delattin's Grayling or even common Grayling. This species was extremely friendly as they constantly landed on us, probably enjoying the salts in the abundant perspiration in the heat of the quarry.
We found a Cone Head Mantis amongst the flowers of a Marjorum plant which is a wierd looking creature and even more bizarre Helen noticed that a copulating pair of butterflies were not quite properly matched with one being a Hairstreak and the other a blue. A male Ilex Hairstreak had coupled with a female Common Blue. We caught this on film but missed taking photos of the odd couple.
After a couple of hours wandering through the marble blocks in the heat we headed down the road into some shade beside the small stream that ran along the centre of the valley. We ate our sandwiches and drank lemon beer whilst watching mud puddling butterflies. A chalkhill Blue had two Silver-studded Blues attempt a landing on it. A large Woodland Grayling dominated the smaller butterflies and Common Blues puddled together showing huge differences in sizes between individuals of the same species.
After eating, Helen and I walked slowly along the road leaving Assen trying to get some flight shots of the Golden Ringed and Pincer-tailed dragonflies zooming up and down the stream.
At one point we found a path that crossed the stream and amongst some ferns discovered one or two Common Gliders. These fluttered around landing occasionally on the plants beside the stream. At various points along the road water from the hillside ran beside the tarmac and butterflies puddled along the road. Here we found more Meleager's Blues, a Grizzled Skipper, Whites, Brown Argus, Nettle Tree Butterflies and a Southern Skimmer dragonfly.
At one point three species of Anomalous Blues puddled together. The first of these with no white streak on the hindwing and more marginal markings than the others was the Anomalous Blue. The females even have some orange lunules on the upperwings. With a very faint white streak or none at all were Grecian Anomalous Blues. This was the species we had failed to photograph near the village of Paril. Finally were Ripart's Anomalous Blues with a strong white streak on the underside of the hindwing.
Just to top off the show after we had watched a snake slither off into the undergrowth I found another Common Glider mud puddling and showing its beautiful underwing and upperwing beside the road.
Next on our agenda was the village of Novo Hodjovo. We pulled up and parked next to a minibus that had transported a group of British dragonfly enthusiasts to the site. This was another trip organised through the British-Bulgarian Society. The weather had taken a turn for the worst and was looking decidedly stormy forcing most of the butterflies into cover. We saw various common species including Small Heath, Mallow Skipper and a single Gatekeeper.
Dragonflies were plentiful along the river and we saw Ruddy Darter and Scarce Chaser. However, the dragonfly group had found a pair of Yellow-spotted Emeralds that we couldn't unfortunately locate.
The scenery beside the river was superb and if it wasn't for the fact that we had to move on this would have made a lovely place for a longer visit.
The Chuchuligovo Hills were an area I was keen to visit as Inky Skipper, Mediterranean Skipper and Persian Skipper were all possibilities here. Assen took us to an area he had previously visited with Nick close to the Komitite Hotel complex, approximately 1.5 km from the greek border and a further 35 km from the Macedonian border. We walked around close to the hotel finding nothing much other than a Spur-thighed Tortoise so we decided to take the car a little further along the track that passed by the hotel. After a few hundred yards Assen parked the car as driving became difficult and we walked along the track.
Helen and myself simultaneously noticed a tiny butterfly jinxing around above some dried grasses growing out of a steep stony hillside to the left of the track. At first I assumed it was one of the extremely small Silver-studded Blues we had been seeing at many sites but then it settled on the vegetation to reveal marble like underwings with gem like spots of orange, black and blue. We had found a Grass Jewel. In the same area that evening we managed to find two of these little beauties, the smallest butterflies to be found in Europe and in this case as far as I know the first for South West Bulgaria.
Although we found none of the Skippers I was hoping for a new species for the area was definitely a bonus and one we weren't expecting. On speaking to Nikolay Shtinkov a friend of Michael Fields it appears that our records may be the first definite records for Bulgaria as apparently previous records from Eastern Bulgaria close to the Turkish border are unconfirmed. These pictures, showing the evening sun reflecting from the margins of the wings, can definitely confirm our sightings.
A few celebratory beers were consumed that evening in the extremely posh restaurant of Hotel Edia whilst we planned to have a second look at the site the following morning.
Day 14 - 7th July
We initially walked around some cultivated areas in the Chuchuligovo hills finding Lesser Spotted Fritillaries, many Mallow Skippers and Eastern Bath Whites but nothing else worth mentioning so we decided to try the area close to the Komitite Hotel. Again we found Grass Jewels, this time moving at high speed, not stopping and only being identified by their size and movements. During this visit we found five in total along the same stretch of track.
A few butterflies nectared on Bramble beside the track including Meadow Browns, which made me search for Lattice Brown but I only found Hermits. Skippers were very few and far between and only a single Erynnis skipper landed along the path. I'm still not 100% certain whether this individual was just a Dingy Skipper or whether it was an Inky Skipper. My video of it was fairly poor as it had its wings half closed and it appeared fairly silhouetted against the very pale sun drenched background. It only stayed put for a few seconds before it flew extremely quickly up the track, into a field and unfortunately out of view. You can't have everything.
Small Heath and a False Eros Blue look a like (likely a Common Blue) were noted along the track. Other insects included a blue Skimmer dragonfly which was either Southern Skimmer or the southern sub species of Keeled Skimmer ssp. anceps which I think was the likely culprit. I spent several minutes watching a very large spider hunting wasp Batozonellus lacerticida cleaning out its burrow, before it dragged a hapless paralyzed arachnid down to a grizzly death to be devoured by a wasp grub. On re-appearing from its burrow it seemed to twirl its antennae round at the entrance to the hole, maybe checking the width of the hole as it furiously filled it with sand. It then wandered around looking rather proud of itself before it flew off.
As the temperature had begun to rise to an uncomfortable level, Assens idea of walking in a forested area at altitude seemed like a great idea as it would be much cooler. We therefore, headed off to the northern slopes of Belasitsa Mountain, a NATURA 2000 European ecological network area which is supported by Sofia Natural History Museum i.e. Assen and his colleagues. The area is bordered to the west by the Republic of Macedonia and to the south by Greece.
We drove up through the woods until the track became a little rough. We parked up and began to walk the track which had several areas of puddles along its length and many streams passing beside it flowing down the mountainside. Assen had mentioned we should look out for Poplar Admirals and Emperors along the track. We didn't see any Poplar Admirals but were entertained by several Purple Emperors including one individual that spent much of its time perched on either one of us. It sat on my shoulder, on Helens cap and even on Assens foot, presumably enjoying a good lick of perspiration in the extreme heat.
Whilst Helen and Assen were attempting to photograph the purple on the open wings I filmed a pair of very orange looking Clouded Yellows which I identified as Balkan Clouded Yellows when I paused the video at home. The male had pure black edges to the upperwings and the female had neat small rows of yellow spots on her black wing edges. Further along up the track a single male Clouded Yellow showed yellow veins crossing the black wing edges on paused sections of video.
Grizzled Skipper, Common Blue, Brown Argus and a very pale Comma fed alongside the path, whilst Heath Fritillary, a very worn almost colourless Green Hairstreak, Red Admiral, Wood White, Wall Brown and a female Clouded Yellow of the pale yellow form helicina were found on the track. Other insects included a large Cicada of the species Lyristes plebejus screeching away on a dried twig and again the fantastically bright coloured Green Club-tailed Dragonfly flew along the path teasing us until we'd almost given up, before allowing us to get close to it. Strangely it sat without moving on a rock as a car passed within a few inches of it, then allowing Assen and myself to film and photograph it. When I reached for the camera from Helen who stood behind me it flew off and out of sight down the track, typical.
Helen has learnt through years of following me around with our camera to wait until I've filmed a subject before moving in for a few photos due the noise of the camera. Normally, this works well and video and photos are gathered. If the subject is a real rarity, we often film and photograph together and I can use a section of film with natural sounds in the background. Very rarely do we clash and the subject is frightened away with neither photos or film being taken.
We headed back down hill as it began to spit with rain as I feared for the safety of my camera in heavy rain. We eventually arrived back at the car avoiding any major downpour and left the mountainside and headed for the Rupite mineral springs in the foothills of the extinct Kozhuh volcano. On arriving several elderly people were bathing in the yellow mud of the hot springs. They were a little way from where the water bubbled from the ground in order to avoid the extreme heat.
We were unable to avoid the intense heat of the sun and began walking along an overgrown gravel path that led around the foot of the remains of the volcano which formed a circle around the hot springs. The hot micro climate had its own fauna and flora. Bee Eaters called from the centre of the extinct volcano and a Swallowtail flew past us. We took a long look at it as Assen explained it may be possible to see Southern Swallowtail here.
Many Sooty Coppers lined the dried vegetation along with Lesser Spotted Fritillaries. Many Whites zoomed around but very few settled. Those that did were either Small, Southern Small or Eastern Bath Whites. We found an extremely obliging Little Tiger Blue sitting on the vegetation beside the path, where it was duly photographed and filmed.
We entered an area with a few low growing bushes and trees and found several Graylings. Well actually the Graylings found us, as the first one landed on Assen with further individuals landing on Helen, then on me.
This was an area known for Freyer's Grayling, a similar looking species to Tree Grayling. These were certainly very similar to Tree Graylings but had three distinct dark lines on the underside of the hindwing passing unbroken from one edge of the hindwing to the other. These were definitely Freyer's Graylings. As it began raining they left us and headed for the trees, being joined by a Great Banded Grayling.
We beat a hasty retreat back to the car when of course the few rain drops abated. We drove across the dried up mud to park the car beneath a bridge beside the river where Helen spent some time photographing nesting House Martins under the bridge. I filmed two mud puddling Short-tailed Blues and what appeared to be Pool Frogs in the slow moving river water.
We decided to walk back from the other end of the gravel path whilst Assen took the car to meet us. Disaster upon disaster, the air conditioning in the car was in the throws of death.
Along the track we encountered Mallow Skippers, Southern White Admirals, a male Wasp Spider Argiope bruennichi, many labyrinth spiders Agelena labyrinthica with funnel shaped webs and some huge dark brown Bush Crickets Bradyporus dasypus. At the end of the track we met up with Assen and headed off to our hotel for another meal surrounded by trailing vines and waterfalls beside the river.
Day 15 - 8th July
We were now two thirds of the way through our stay in Bulgaria and slowly heading back towards Sofia. We had another brilliant breakfast at the Edia Hotel before leaving for the Kresna Gorge. Along the gorge Assen parked up by a bridge and we walked around the Tissata Reserve which was a dry grassy area used as a stop off point for various human activities I won't mention here. We walked for several hundred yards along the gorge finding very little of note and from what I've heard about the gorge I guess it must be more interesting at other times of the year, as I found it extremely disappointing.
The other side of the road along the river was a little better with White-legged Damselflies and Banded Demoiselles near the bridge and the large Antlion Palpares libelluloides in a dry meadow. In the dry meadow were also Dingy Skipper, Tufted Marbled Skipper, Mallow Skipper and most interestingly an egg laying female Eastern Baton Blue.
We left the gorge and headed onto higher ground on the Predela Pass, where many Bulgarians were stopping for water. Here we headed away from the large numbers of people in the car park into a large and beautiful flower meadow. The long grasses of the meadow were full of plants such as Majorum and these in turn were covered with nectaring butterflies.
Courting Black-veined Whites fluttered around thistle flowers whilst scores of Coppers feasted on the Marjorum. Purple Shot, Balkan and Scarce Coppers all nectared alongside each other and were later joined by Knapweed Fritillaries. Other Fritillaries were Heath, Spotted and Lesser Marbled. This was the only site we saw Lesser Marbled Fritillaries which are fairly scarce compared to Marbled Fritillaries in Bulgaria.
We also encountered a pair of copulating Small Skippers and a Small Eggar Caterpillar.
Over the brow of the pass a few miles down the road we made another stop where Assen had often seen Common Rosefinch. We heard the birds but didn't see them. Butterflies here were similar to those at the Predela Pass without Lesser Marbled Fritillary, but Sloe Hairstreaks were numerous here. Ringlets sat in the hedgerows as did a mating pair of Large Red Damselflies and a female Broad Bodied Chaser laid her eggs in a muddy puddle whilst being guarded by the blue male.
On arrival at our hotel in Dobarsko, we sat on the balcony watching a thunder storm as it passed over Bansko and the distant Pirin Mountains before we headed to the restaurant for a local sausage dish which was excellent.
Day 16 - 9th July
The Dobarsko Hotel is ideally situated between the Pirin and Rila Mountains. On the 9th we headed to Belmeken Reservoir found along the eastern most edge of the Rila Mountains. This is the highest reservoir in Bulgaria and has a newly built sports complex situated close by it. Here winter sports athletes go for their summer training at altitude. There were hoards of extremely fit athletes either running or training on the roads with in line skates.
We parked up close to the huge reservoir and readied ourselves for an uphill climb. A young Souslik appeared from a burrow on the mountainside near the car until the deep barking of a huge local shepherds dog frightened it back into its burrow. We began our climb of the mountain as we were watched and followed by the dog. He was definitely herding us away from something and we weren't about to argue. Luckily he herded us in the direction we wanted to go, up a small stream that tumbled down the mountainside creating some very boggy ground.
Along the stream nectaring on the red Avens Geum coccineum were large numbers of Ottoman Brassy Ringlets. These butterflies were also found drinking where water flowed across rocks. Bright-eyed Ringlets, Eastern Large Heaths and Balkan Coppers were also common along the stream. Lesser numbers of Large Grizzled Skippers nectared in the area, a single Grizzled Skipper was viewed and Mazarine Blues mud puddled beside the water.
Slender looking, dark throated, Balkan Stream Frogs sat amongst the flowers until we ventured too close, at which point they launched themselves into the stream.
We continued our walk up the mountainside until we reached the remnants of the snow line where another stream gushed down the mountain. Here plants such as Butterworts and Bell Flowers bloomed and a single Shepherd's Fritillary sat out a gloomy spell on a rock when the sun nipped behind a cloud. As soon as the sun re-appeared the butterfly was off and away.
Close to the highest point we reached, a family of Whinchats called anxiously from the tops of the Juniper bushes. As we returned to the car I was hoping to find more Sousliks as there were plenty of burrows around the mountainside, but the area was now in the shade and none were to be seen.
On the return journey we stopped off around the sports complex buildings and investigated the small meadows in the woods. Here we found 15 very fresh Balkan Fritillaries settling up for the night in fields full of blue and yellow Mountain pansies.
Day 17 - 10th July
On Day 17 of our tour around Southern Bulgaria we spent our time in the Pirin Mountains along the road heading towards Gotce Delchev Hut above Dobrinishte village. The main aim here was to find Poplar Admirals for filming and photographs.
We stopped in a lay-by close to a small local Potato field and it wasn't long before we saw at least two Poplar Admirals. One of these landed in a tree but was some distance from the road. The other flew around and disappeared over the trees. We hung around for a couple of hours finding various Coppers, Blues and Fritillaries but no more Poplar Admirals. We therefore, headed further up the road to some more open ground near to a restaurant and fish farm.
We stopped off for some refreshments at the fish farm hoping to see Poplar Admirals here, as Assen had found them coming to the ground close to the table where we sat. Again we had no luck and left without being able to film Poplar Admiral.
From this point we walked most of the way back down the road with Assen following in the car. There were two dead and completely flattened Fire Salamanders on the road. This was an amphibian I would have loved to have seen alive but the weather was way to hot for these secretive creatures to come out. Cooler days with plenty of rain are ideal to see these creatures up in the mountains.
On our walk down the road I watched a female Valezina Silver-washed Fritillary fending off a male as she hung upside down from an umbeliferous plant, whilst Long-horned Beetles buzzed past. We spend almost 30 minutes watching some purple flowers that were attracting numerous butterflies that were just out of range for the macro lens on the still camera but were within the limits of the video camera. Here we found Purple Shot, Scarce and Balkan Coppers, Pearly Heath, Silver-studded Blue and Idas Blue.
We eventually ended up back down by another Potato field where a chap was buying trout from someone who I guess was poaching them from the river. A short walk from the road found a Purple Emperor taking up water from beside the river but no Poplar Admirals. We again continued back to our original starting point where we waited and watched. Finally after a long wait a large female Poplar Admiral appeared and floated down the road towards the potato field where it was lost to view. After a few more minutes of searching it suddenly re-appeared and flew into the roadside trees where I eventually found its resting position on a leaf. Perfect, I got the camera booted up and found the butterfly in the viewfinder. No sooner had I got it in view than it flew off. It landed down by a small stream in the trees, diverted to the field , and began walking around on the floor. Who put all those leaves in the way. I couldn't get a clear shot of it, just glimpses between blurred green leaves. I decided to head down the steep bank to get a little closer but as soon as I moved in below the trees the Admiral lifted up off the ground and completely disappeared never to be seen again.
We gave up and headed to another spot for some of the more common species and whilst Assen sat in the car the air conditioning completely packed in leaving us to sweat it out in the heat. The car was taken to a local garage in Bansko where after some sucking of air in through the teeth the mechanic decided the air conditioning system needed to be re-gassed.
We were taken by taxi back to our hotel where we decided that for the last few days we would manage without the air conditioning in order to get the car back. As we sat and discussed these options thunder cracks were heard and the skies opened. This was probably the best afternoon to be without a car as it threw it down with rain.
Day 18 - 11th July
The car arrived back in the morning, well before we needed it and we headed back to Bansko, through the town and up into the mountains past all the new ski hotels that were being built on ground that has the equivalent of SSSI status and was originally designated for the wildlife. Money talks!
Assen dropped us off at the top of the road beside one of the so called huts where people can stay overnight in the mountains. He gave us directions for a couple of places where we could walk before taking the car back down the mountain into Bansko to get the brake pads replaced as we were now hearing the sound of metal on metal.
We walked around above the hut and it was actually fairly cool. A few butterflies such as Dark Green Fritillary and Woodland Ringlet were up and about nectaring whilst we admired the scenery below the highest peak of Mount Vihren. After wandering around above the hut we crossed over the road and headed back down the mountain along a narrow path that ran more or less parallel to the road.
In some small meadows we found many Small Tortoiseshells, a Painted Lady, High Brown Fritilliries, Peacocks, Brimstone and a female Clouded Apollo. Unfortunately she had seen better days and didn't even warrant a photograph. She could still fly although, I was surprised after looking at her wings.
We stopped to watch a female Bullfinch feeding on Dock seeds before arriving at a slightly larger meadow. Here we found Hummingbird Hawk Moths, a Common Swallowtail, lots of Ottoman Brassy Ringlets, Pearl-bordered and Balkan Fritillaries and two Clouded Apollos that were in much better condition than the first we'd seen higher up.
Whilst in the field Assen met us after getting the brakes fixed and we headed off to a corner of the road that was known to be a haunt for a variety of Blue butterflies. The corner of the road was rich with flowering Sainfoin that was attracting various butterflies including one Ripart's Anomalous Blue. I fixed the camera on it and it immediately opened it's wings revealing the not so attractive brown upper surface with a huge sex brand that covered at least half of the forewing surface towards the body. Unfortunately I didn't manage to get any film footage of the underside of the wings showing the white streak on the hindwing.
I therefore, decided to walk along the roadside as there were numerous Sainfoin plants along its length. After a while I found another Ripart's Anomalous Blue taking salts from a gravelly patch beside the road before it flew to a nearby plant where it perched for at least 30 minutes. Everyone managed to get shots of its underside showing very few spots. This is apparently normal for this species in this area.
Whilst walking the roadside we discovered many Silver-studded Blues, Turquoise Blue, Ottoman Brassy Ringlets and a nice False Eros Blue. As we left the site and headed back to the car we found Pearl-bordered Fritillary, Eastern Large Heath and Large Grizzled Skipper.
We moved a little further down the road for drinks and something to eat before inspecting more meadows lower down the mountain. Here we found another Ripart's Anomalous Blue, Brown Argus and Mountain Argus plus Arran Brown and Balkan Fritillaries.
Next on the agenda were the Izvorite meadows around the ski runs lower down the mountain in the more heavily wooded areas. As we left the car at this altitude the heat was crippling and as we walked around the meadows it was obvious there would be very little butterfly life as everything was completely dried up. A few Clouded Yellows were the only butterflies we saw.
There was no point in stopping in this area so we decided although it was late in the day we would have a look in the limestone Gorge close to our Hotel in Dobarsko. Unfortunately we were a little too late for most of the butterflies as they had mainly gone to roost but a few skippers were flying plus Eastern Bath White and Spotted Fritillary were seen. We also had some excellent views of a male Rock Bunting sitting in a pine tree.
Day 19 - 12th July
As the limestone gorge near Dobarsko looked an interesting site we decided to have a look there on the morning of our departure. The site was known for Russian Heath that we had not seen during our trip and this was the main reason for spending so much time at this site.
We spent around three hours walking the stream that ran along one of the gorges. It was a beautiful spot with many butterflies including lots of Pearly Heaths and the odd Small Heath but no Russian Heaths. Michael Field was in Bulgaria earlier in the year in May and saw Russian Heath so I guess we were just too late or in between flight periods.
There were plenty of other species along the walk including Woodland Grayling, Meadow Brown, Heath Fritillary, White Admiral, Purple Emperor, Map Butterfly, Silver-washed Fritillary, Cardinal, Large Wall Brown, Red Admiral, Large Ringlet, Woodland Ringlet and even an Apollo put in an appearance. Many of the butterflies nectared on the huge numbers of thistle flowers that covered the sunlit areas by the path, whilst others like the Admirals and some blues mud puddled on the track itself.
After a pleasing walk along the stream we headed back seeing the same species plus an Agile Frog or possibly Balkan Stream Frog that was hardly noticeable due its excellent path coloured camouflage.
We left Dobarsko behind us and headed towards our final destination, the highest mountain range in Bulgaria, the Rila Mountains. On the way we made a brief stop in the Bistrica river valley a couple of miles outside of Blagoevgrad after seeing a Glider fly across the road.
We walked along the river for a few hundred yards and found many blues coming down to the sand between the stones at the side of the river. These included Common, Silver-studded and possibly a few Balkan Zephyr Blues. Whilst watching the blues a Scarce Swallowtail floated by and a Common Glider landed beside the river for a few seconds and then it was off again. When we arrived back at the car Assen had found another Common Glider that alighted on a leaf quite close to the path for a decent photo opportunity.
We followed the river up into the foothills of the Rila Mountains coming to the end of the tarmac road at our Hotel, the Kartala Ski Hotel. On driving up the final section of road to the hotel building we were greeted with barks as the local guard dog lunged at us. Luckily he was tied to a tree or he would certainly have ended up beneath one of the tyres. I don't know what his name was, but he was scarred around his face from various battles and he limped a bit. I nick named him "killer" as that's what he looked like he wanted to do to me, every time I walked past him.
The hotel was quite large with its own ski lift and the ski run stopped on the front lawn of the hotel. We were greetd by the Manageress and shown to our rooms inside an entire air conditioned hotel. After a brief rest we were off again up the track that led past the hotel. It became a gravel track into a Nature Reserve with a sign showing the animals that were present in the reserve. These included Bear, Wolf and Wild Boar to mention just three. Wouldn't it be great to see these. Not too close though.
Just where the park entrance sign was, we found our first Purple Emperor of many. Later that evening we found three together on the ground in the same spot. However, pushing Purple Emperors to one side, if that is at all possible, we were walking this track looking for an even larger butterfly and there was one sitting on the track in front of us. A huge female Poplar Admiral sat on the ground but unfortunately had a pebble directly in front of it slightly obscuring the camera angle. It was filmed in any case but then flew off before I could get any closer to it. This was a real wow moment as it was the best close view I'd had of this species and the females were really huge. Much bigger than the Purple Emperors.
We walked a few hundred metres along the track seeing nothing much further on apart from a man with his loud dog and a slightly deformed Bedstraw Hawk Moth. However, on the way back Assen was ahead of us and he'd spotted something. This time it was a male Poplar Admiral sitting on the track with its wings raised up showing the neat orange and white underside pattern. I managed a little video in the poor evening light before it flew up into the trees presumably to roost for the night.
We wandered back to the hotel past the lunging Killer and had a fabulous dinner with a few beers to celebrate of course.
Day 20 - 13th July
No requirement for the air conditioning in the car today as we weren't driving from the hotel. After breakfast we decided to take a short walk into the nature reserve up the road to look for Poplar Admirals. I didn't have particularly high hopes as it was Friday 13th but it was worth a try. At the altitude we were at, it was actually fairly chilly in the morning and most of the butterflies were still waiting for the air temperature to warm up. Needless to say we didn't see any Admirals or Emperors, just a few whites and Meadow Browns.
Next on the plan was to take the ski lift up to the top of the mountain to look for a few special species. The hotel staff had kindly offered to start up the entire chair lift system for us at the princely sum of £4 each for the return trip. Our hotel handy man, we nick named Mr. fix it, who seemed to perform almost every job in the hotel kicked the lift into action and we sat in a four person closed chair lift waiting for the cable to get up to speed before we were launched up the hill.
The views were great if you like that sort of thing. I'm afraid I have a bit of a phobia with heights but I did appreciate the view back down the mountain as the cable car cut its way through the forest at an extremely steep angle up the mountainside. It was certainly much quicker than walking.
We reached the top and were greeted by Mr. fix its mate who worked and slept at the top performing maintenance tasks during the summer months. We left the overgrown shed that the system was housed in and set off over the very barren grassy mountain top, heading towards the highest point several hundred metres in the distance. Assen strode purposefully to the summit whilst we admired the thousands of grasshoppers that had presumably laid waste to the sparse vegetation around the cable car building. Every foot step sent hundreds of these grasshoppers jumping off in all directions.
Near to the cable car station we came across some yellow flowered plants that were attracting various Ringlets, namely Bright-eyed and Woodland, both of which appeared to be up there.
There were some smaller less showy ringlets, appearing to have slightly more pointy wings. They had smaller spots on the wings than the others, mostly with no white centres to the spots or only very small white centres. These were one of our target species, the Bulgarian Ringlet.
The next butterflies and our second target species were the beautiful Nicholl's Ringlets with their gorgeous orange and chocolate coloured upper wings and marbled and banded underwing pattern. These were a real treat to see. We wandered further away from the building following the clumps of flowers and the ringlets. A few Eastern Large Heaths associated with the ringlets but not much else was found. We just enjoyed watching the species we had found and admired the views around the whole mountain range from the Rila Mountains over to the Pirin Mountains.
We slowly made our way in the direction Assen had gone, when he suddenly appeared rushing down the hillside to inform us he'd found Cynthia's Fritillaries higher up near the summit. We began to pick up speed as we followed him up the mountain but soon became completely out of breath in the thin air at the high altitude. The next problem was the clouds that were rolling in over the top of the mountain obscuring the views over our surroundings.
We eventually reached the point where he'd seen the fritillaries but they had disappeared in the inclement conditions. We began to search amongst the low Juniper bushes and I eventually was lucky enough to find an egg laying female. This was quite exciting for me as I'd not managed to film the females in Switzerland, only the males, so the dull orange and brown female was fine for me, even though I did only get a few seconds of film.
After searching for a while, a male eventually flew past me in the wind on the mountain top and I managed to follow its flight path and see where it landed in the Juniper bushes. It sat low down in the Juniper avoiding the wind and as it became colder it ducked down under the canopy of the bush crawling lower down.
We wandered back to the cable car and took a look around the bushes near it. There were some more Bulgarian Ringlets just sitting on the path, hunkered up low in the grasses, avoiding the wind . Nicholl's Ringlets were sitting in the Juniper bushes also avoiding the cold wind. I filmed a male with its wings open and beautiful female with wings closed before concentrating on some grasshoppers.
Helen and I walked slowly back to the cable car and waited for Assen. He had shouted to us but we couldn't here him in the wind. He'd managed to find a great male Cynthis's Fritillary that had posed for him with wings open and closed. We waited while Mr. fix its mate started up the cable and launched us onto it, back down the mountain. What a great day so far, it was only around mid afternoon and we had another walk into the nature reserve planned before dinner.
We met Mr. fix it at the bottom and he let us out of the cars. We headed off down past killer who of course decided it would be a good idea to try and strangle himself on his lead on the off chance that it might break and he would have the chance to kill me. Luckily for me and unluckily for him, his metal chain held true and I sauntered past without a worry. I wouldn't have been so cool about the situation if his chain had broken. I'd have beaten Usain Bolt in the 100 metres with Killer close on my heels in that case.
We had a leisurely walk along the Nature Reserve track watching what I was now calling common species such as Eastern Bath White, Silver-studded Blue, Large Ringlet, White Admiral and a Large Skipper. Again there were reasonable numbers of Purple Emperors especially close to the reserve entrance sign but no sign of Poplar Admirals.
At the highest point we reached, the trees opened out a little and we discovered a Large Grizzled Skipper and shortly afterwards a Marsh Fritillary took a liking to me and decided to walk around on my head.
We walked further along the road than we had previously in the hope of finding Poplar Admirals, and we did. On the track we found two stonking large females with great splashes of white on their wings and at least four males that were very subdued compared to the females. This was partly because they were to be honest completely knackered, one could barely hold itself up to sit on the track and kept falling sideways as it tried to walk. This is the price you pay for constantly fighting over very large girls for the right to produce the next generation.
The females were in much better condition than the males and I guess this may well be due to their less vigourous life style and the fact that they probably emerge slightly later than the males. All in all a great site to behold just due to their size. Of interest to me was the fact that their tongues and eyes were orange matching the colour of the lunules on the wings.
That evening after another excellent meal, Helen and I sat on the restaurant balcony enjoying a last drink before retiring when a rather large, mean looking dog by the name of killer wandered past our table and let out a short snarl in our general direction. He was a nice chap really and soon made friends with me after I gave him a large slice of bread. This didn't stop him from performing his main duty of attempting to kill me the next morning though, bless him.
Day 21 - 14th July
This was our final full day in Bulgaria as we were due to fly from Sofia airport at some unearthly time the next morning. We had our breakfast, packed our gear and waved goodbye to the hotel staff. I had a wander down the road to take a couple of shots of the hotel whilst Killer engaged in his usual routine of trying break free from his chain and rip me to pieces. He did leave me alone for five minutes whilst scaring a couple of walkers half to death as they walked past the hotel. I could tell he was sad to see us go. Who would he bark at once we'd gone?
We set off along the road towards Blagoevgrad and after a couple of miles Assen suddenly swerved to a stop and jumped out of the car. Maybe it was another baby Robin like the one we'd rescued from the road on our way up to the hotel. Nope, it was a whacking great male Stag Beetle sitting on the road. Assen moved it onto a rock so we could all photograph it. It didn't move much although it was definitely alive. I think it may have been in collision with a vehicle on the road. I'm glad it didn't hit our car as I reckon it could have made quite a dent.
We had a couple of planned stops on the way with the first being along the road towards the Rila Monastery where Assen knew a good spot for Emperors and Admirals. Unfortunately even though the area was a nature reserve it was Saturday and packed with locals completely ignoring the no fires and no cars sign, driving along the road to light up their huge picnic fires. We did see several Purple Emperors along the track and a couple of Poplar Admirals. The traffic however, put pay to getting any decent film of the butterflies, even though some of the locals were kind enough to stop their four wheel drive trucks and wait whilst we filmed and photographed.
At one point beneath the shade of the roadside trees I watched a large female Poplar Admiral settle under a pine tree away from the road. I dashed off to find it but had to move a fair distance to get over a stream. By the time I arrived at the spot I couldn't find it, so assumed it had flown off. However, another butterfly flew up and landed on a leaf quite close to us. It initially resembled a White Admiral as it showed its underside but I remembered Helen saying that Hungarian Gliders didn't have the white section on the underside of the wings along the body. Well, this butterfly didn't and it had a very skinny body. Wow, a Hungarian Glider, sitting a few feet away showing off its underwing characteristics. A stroke of luck and well worth visiting the area.
We stopped in one other place along the road to watch Silver-studded Blues and possibly Balkan Zephyr Blues taking on salts alongside a Purple Emperor before we hit the road again. I'm glad we were heading away from the area as the road was jammed in the opposite direction with people heading towards the Monastery.
We headed north towards Sofia along the main E79 beside the Struma river, taking a detour through the small village of Bobochevo. By now the temperature had reached the soaring heights of 40 plus and without the air conditioning we were driving around with all the windows open to stave off the heat. Assen parked under a tree beside a water trough which as usual was full of Yellow-bellied and / or Fire-bellied Toads. Huge numbers of wasps were attracted to the water that was spilling onto the ground from the broken troughs.
As I was watching some blues that were guarding territories close to the water, Helen remarked that she had found a salamander. Well done Helen, not any old salamander but a juvenile Fire Salamander complete with orange markings and gills. There were actually about three in the trough but the other two were less well marked and more difficult to see. Not a big black and yellow adult but the next best thing and something I've wanted to see for years.
We had a quick wander up the hot road finding quite a few blues and a skipper or two. One of the blues caught my attention as it rubbed its wings together. It was a female Eastern Baton Blue, the freshest specimen of this species of the trip. Back towards the car another unusual looking blue fought off the Silver-studded Blues. On closer examination it turned out to be a male Reverdin's Blue, possibly the only definite identification of a male of this species during the holiday. Not a bad way to finish off the holiday.
Windows down, we headed back to Sofia for a look around the main park for Gliders. After hitting a few nasty pot holes in the city we parked up and walked around the park. Unfortunately no Gliders but the shade and cool air under the trees was amazing and one additional species for the holiday was a Purple Hairstreak close to the old swimming pool by some Oak Trees.
We dropped our bags off at the hotel we'd first stopped at, right at the beginning of the trip and handed our almost trusty Renault back to the hire company. After a good shower and change of clothes Assen and Julia arrived to take us out for our last meal in Sofia. We had a good laugh with them both and Julia paid for everything including the drinks which I thought was a nice touch at the end of a great holiday.
Thanks to the British-Bulgarian Society for starting us off and bringing everything together, with special thanks to Nick Greatorex-Davies for his help in planning an itinerary for us. Many thanks to Ognian at Balkania travel for his help and answering my daft questions. A special thanks to Julia for all her organising and ensuring that we stayed in some interesting and great places during our travels in Bulgaria.
Finally a massive thankyou to Assen for sharing three weeks of his time showing us his wonderful country and many of the butterflies and other wildlife. To sum up we had a good laugh and saw some great wildlife. I would thoroughly recommend this trip to anyone considering a visit to Bulgaria.
I have now produced a twin DVD set of the butterflies we encountered during our stay in Bulgaria which is available at
| www.wildlife-films.com - Searching for Butterflies in Southern Bulgaria | where further details of the Twin DVD set and a short trailer can be seen.
Please feel free to contact me at | email@example.com | if you would like any further information on our trip to Bulgaria or if you have any other questions regarding this report.
The following is a list of the 152 species of butterflies seen whilst in Southern Bulgaria:
Those of uncertain ID are shown with a question mark.
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