Day 1. Sofia Airport – Rila Monastery Nature Park (ca. 2 hours driving; 130 km/81 miles)
We will greet you at Sofia Aiport. Our tour begins with a 2-hour transfer from Sofia Airport to the Rila Mountains. We will be accommodated in a family-run hotel right in the heart of Rila Monastery Nature Park. There will be options to do quality birding directly from the doorstep of the hotel. For dinner, we can try some of the local food specialties such as the famous Shopska salad, grilled trout, and homemade sheep yoghurt with honey.
Day 2. NP Rila Monastery – Kresna Gorge – Melnik Pyramids (ca. 2.5 hours of driving; 150 km/92 miles)
This will be a day of great contrasts and many bird species. After breakfast, we will head to the nearby Rila Monastery – a UNESCO-listed sight. It features beautiful monastic buildings with striking and mesmerizing frescoes from the Bulgarian Revival Period (19th century). The monastery is surrounded by old-growth, coniferous forests and high, rocky peaks. We will explore the vicinity of the monastic complex, and try to observe forest, and high-altitude species such as Pallid and Alpine Swift, Yellow-billed Chough, different species of woodpeckers, Eurasian Nutcracker, Goldcrest, Firecrest, Ring Ouzel, Alpine Accentor, Dunnock, Red Crossbill and others. Around noon, we will leave the cool and shady forests of NP Rila Monastery and in less than an hour's drive, we will be at the scenic Kresna Gorge – a migration bottleneck site. There, the feeling that we are somewhere in the Mediterranean is distinctly eminent. We will have short birding walks in the area, which is special not only by its breath-taking sights of Pirin Mountains and impressive avian diversity, but it is also a biodiversity hotspot and we will enjoy observing different plants (including wild orchids), amphibians, and reptiles. Later, we will continue further south to visit Rupite – an awe-inspiring crater of a long inactive volcano. A 30-minute transfer from there is the smallest town in Bulgaria – Melnik. There we will be accommodated in a 3-star hotel for 2 nights.
Some of the target species we will aim to observe are Griffon Vulture, Short-toed Snake-Eagle, European Honey-buzzard, Booted Eagle, Long-legged Buzzard, Levant Sparrowhawk, Sardinian Warbler, Eastern Orphean Warbler, Common Grasshopper Warbler, Eastern Subalpine Warbler, Cetti's Warbler, Western Rock Nuthatch, Eastern Black-eared Wheatear, Masked Shrike, Sombre Tit, Olive-tree Warbler, Icterine Warbler, Blue Rock-Thrush, Rock Sparrow and many more.
Day 3. Melnik – Kerkini Lake – Melnik (ca. 2 hours driving; 130 km/81 miles)
It is a day dedicated to Lake Kerkini – one of the most notable for its birdlife wetlands in Europe and a recognized Ramsar site. Besides its impressive biodiversity, the area of the lake is extremely scenic, which compliments the great birdwatching. From different viewpoints, we will be scanning the surface of the lake for migrating and already breeding waterbirds. We will also have an easy walk along the eastern part of the lake, where usually most of the waders are concentrated. In the afternoon we will take an over an hour boat trip that will take us near to the flooded forest colony of different herons and cormorants. Our species list will be building up by the hour. We will return to the Bulgarian town of Melnik to see how the sunset colours the sand pyramids in pink while listening to nightingales and Scops owls. Melnik is famous for its wines, which we can sample in the evening.
Day 4. Melnik – Demir Kapija – Shtip – Ohrid (ca. 7 hours of driving; 440 km/275 miles)
In the early morning we will say farewell to Melnik and in an hour's time pass the border point between Bulgaria and North Macedonia. Our first birding stop will be at Demir Kapija Gorge – an Important Bird Area, equally interesting for raptors such as Golden Eagle, Griffon and Egyptian vultures and a fascinating diversity of passerines. We will also visit a nearby village with a colony of Lesser kestrels and then head to the vicinity of the town of Shtip, where our main focus will be the observations of the Eastern Imperial Eagle. Our trip for the day will be concluded in Ohrid, a town with opulent historical and cultural heritage.
Day 5. Ohrid
The city of Ohrid dubbed the Jerusalem on the Balkans, is listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. It is a place of exceptional beauty, many historical sights, cosy restaurants with tasty Macedonian dishes and captivating views over the stunning Ohrid Lake. We will have the day to tour the city and immerse ourselves in the culture and way of life of the old town of Ohrid. After breakfast, we will have a 3-hour guided walking tour along the narrow streets of the old town to explore its most fascinating sights some of which are the Cathedral St. Sophia, the Ancient Theatre (1st century BC), the Panteiimon Church, the Samoil Fortress that offers great vistas of the surrounding natural wonders and the St. John the Evangelist church. You will have the afternoon to further explore Ohrid on your own or take a boat tour of the lake (at your own expense). For dinner, you will have a lot of options to taste local food such as Tavce Gravce (baked beans), turlitava (vegetables and meat), trout, sarmi and others. The locals usually have their evening meal with homemade rakia (spirited drink).
Day 6. Ohrid – Divjaka-Karavasta National Park (ca. 4 hours of driving; 180 km/112 miles)
We will leave North Macedonia in the morning and travel to Albania’s most famous lagoon – Karavasta, part of Divjaka-Karavasta National Park. It is a top birdwatching destination, equally important for the numerous breeding in it birds as well as for the huge flocks of waterbirds that use the Adriatic Flyway. Spring is the best time to be here. The national park’s vast water bodies, small ponds, estuaries, forests, scrubs and sand dunes with their impressive avian diversity have made many international tourists their lifetime impassionate admirers. The list of expected bird species is vast and includes Red-crested Pochard, Ferruginous Duck, Greater Flamingo, Little Grebe, Great Crested Grebe, Stone Curlew, Black-winged Stilt, and many other waders, Collared Pratincole, Parasitic Jaeger, Slender-billed Gull, Mediterranean Gull, Little Tern, Caspian Tern, White-winged Tern, Whiskered Tern, Sandwich Tern, Pygmy Cormorant, Dalmatian Pelican, Purple Heron, Cattle Egret, Squacco Heron, Zitting Cisticola, Eastern Olivaceous Warbler, Icterine Warbler, Moustached Warbler, Short-toed Treecreeper, Tawny Pipit, Black-headed Bunting…. Overnight in a family-owned hotel.
Day 7. Divjaka-Karavasta NP – Narta Lagoon– Gjirokaster (ca. 4 hours of driving; 220 km/137 miles)
After breakfast, we will have a 2-hour transfer to another famous renowned Adriatic coastal wetland complex. We will spend a few hours birdwatching in the Protected Area Vjosë-Nartë. It is also declared an Important Bird Area and a Key Biodiversity Area. We will be stopping at different habitats, but paying mainly attention to the Narta Lagoon and the nearby saltpans. Our target is to add water-connected bird species to the already pretty long list from the previous day. In the afternoon we will continue further south to the town of Gjirokaster (UNESCO), also known as the City of Stone. The old town has the ambience of a living museum that can tell intriguing and captivating tales. There are superb views of the steep surrounding mountains from the castle overlooking the old town. We will have an opportunity to taste some of the delicious local dishes. Overnight in Gjirokaster.
Day 8. Gjirokaster – Vikos-Aoös National Park (ca. 1.5 hours of driving; 80 km/56 miles)
On our agenda is passing another border point, this time between Albania and Greece. We will be heading to an exceptionally scenic part of the Pindus Mountains. Expect breathtaking panoramic views of rivers, lakes, gorges and dense forests. Some of our target bird species will be Egyptian Vulture, Golden Eagle, Booted Eagle, Short-toed Eagle, Peregrine Falcon, Willow Tit, Black Woodpecker, Green Woodpecker, Syrian Woodpecker, Firecrest, Short-toed Treecreeper, Middle Spotted Woodpecker, Dipper, Redstart, Rock Bunting, Cirl Bunting, Coal Tit, Honey Buzzard, Tawny Pipit, Water Pipit, Alpine Chough. We may get lucky in spotting elusive species such as Wallcreeper, Horned Lark, and White-winged Snowfinch. We may look forward to seeing different species of large mammals, reptiles and amphibians. Overnight in a guest house in the region of the Vikos Gorge.
Day 9. Vikos-Aoös National Park – Axios (Vardar) Delta (ca. 4 hours of driving; 300 km/186 miles)
In the morning we will take time to further explore the varied relief and the different habitats of the area. In the afternoon we will board our minibus and travel a few hours on the Via Egnatia highway to Axios Delta National Park. We will be accommodated in a guest house in a nearby village.
Day 10. Axios Delta NP, Greece – Sofia City, Bulgaria (ca. 4 hours of driving; 300 km/186 miles)
The Axios Delta National Park boasts great birdwatching opportunities of seeing a lot of different birds from a relatively close distance. The whole ecosystem of river estuaries, deltas, riverbeds, lagoons, floodplains and wet meadows is only a few kilometres from the city of Thessaloniki. Their inhabitants are used to human presence. We will be birding around the area until noon when we will start our journey back to Sofia. In the late afternoon, you will have time to familiarize yourself with Sofia’s center, where your 3-star hotel will be. Dinner included.
Day 11. Sofia City – Sofia Airport (ca. 20 minutes of driving)
You will be picked up from your hotel and transferred to Sofia Airport according to your flight.