Dalmatian Pelicans and Big Birds of Bulgaria

View Full SlideshowView Full Slideshow

Ask A Question
Download Trip Details
Get Our eNewsletter

Dalmatian pelicans, golden eagles and griffon vultures are among the exciting target species featured in this unusual 11-day winter wildlife photography tour in Bulgaria and Northern Greece. 
Winter is a time when many species of birds congregate in areas where accessible food is concentrated.  Waterbirds target habitats rich with small fish, invertebrates or edible vegetation, while large birds of prey search for winter-killed carcasses.  Now, songbirds collect in protective mixed flocks foraging over dormant field and forest—and smaller birds of prey relentlessly hunt for them.  These short-lived seasonal concentrations always provide exceptional opportunities for nature photographers to capture great wildlife imagery.

Pelican in flightDalmatian pelicans—the world's largest, rarest and most spectacular—congregate annually on Northern Greece's Lake Kerkini, not far from the northern border with Bulgaria.  The lake is one of the most important wintering sites in Europe for the species.  Though pelican numbers have declined dramatically during the 20th century, here they thrive, living peacefully with the local fishermen who now use their fishing boats (and fish) for winter pelican photography tourism.  In January and February these amazing birds, weighing up to 15 kilograms (31.1 pounds) are in full breeding plumage with long comical and unkempt crown and nape feathers, a massive red pouch and piercing white eyes.  They can be photographed by boat as well as from the shore—in flight and on the water.

Golden eagles are the most widespread eagle species in the northern hemisphere—yet for most photographers they are extremely difficult to "shoot" in the wild.  North of Lake Kerkini and into Bulgaria's Eastern Rhodope Mountains many eagles survive the harsh mountain winters at "eagle feeders" when food is scarce and snow blankets the ground.  In front of well-constructed permanent wildlife blinds (hides) road-killed deer and abattoir offal are placed within full-frame photographic range, providing great shots of the birds in flight and perched, feeding, mating and preening—without disturbing them.  Bulgaria's mountain golden eagle population is strong with more than 150 pairs.  At these blinds we may photograph pairs flying in to feed, sometimes interacting with red foxes, griffon vultures and the occasional gray wolf.

Griffon vultures (Gyps fulvus) numbers have markedly declined throughout their Eurasian range.  Once "on the brink of extinction" in Bulgaria—with less than a dozen pairs—these days their population is flourishing with 70 pairs breeding on remote crags in the Rhodope Mountains as a result of the conservation actions of the local Bulgarian Society for the Protection of Birds.  This amazing bird relies almost entirely on finding the remains of dead animals.  Here, they are aided in winter by carcasses provided by the local conservationists—also within photographic range of well-placed permanent photo blinds in the snowy mountains.  The social character of this species, its invisible hierarchy and amazing behavioral dominance dynamics provide excellent opportunities for great wildlife action photography.

Along with the three main stars of this tour there are opportunities to photograph spotted nutcrackers that can be fed by hand in the snowy mountains, ravens, jays and magpies, plus several wintering species of Eurasian ducks and gulls, little owls, as well as passerines (songbirds) at a bird feeder.

Tour Itinerary

Day 1
Depart from home.
Day 2  (January 18)
Arrive in Sofia, Bulgaria.  Our local guide will meet your flight on this day and deliver you to our hotel.  We will meet this evening and head to dinner at a local restaurant.  (D)
Day 3
Driving from Sofia towards Plovdiv we take a short detour to snowy Vitosha Mountain where we have the opportunity to photograph hand-tame spotted nutcrackers (Nucifraga caryocatactes) at close range.  Like the familiar Clark's nutcracker of the mountains of the North American west, this dapper member of the corvid family dwells in the montane coniferous forest where it gathers the seeds from cones of pine and spruce and stores them in large hidden caches to eat throughout the winter.

Following lunch we continue our journey to the Eastern Rhodope Mountains—a four-hour drive.  We plan to arrive to our hotel in the late afternoon for an early dinner and preparation for an early start the following morning.
Days 4–6
We devote these three days to photographing golden eagles and griffon vultures.

The use of permanent photo blinds (hides) placed at large feeding stations and man-made water features is a growing trend in nature photography—especially in Europe.  During our stay in this region we have three shooting days in comfortable and heated blinds with the needed "facilities" for comfort while shooting wildlife in the wintry landscape.

Pair of vlutures in BulgariaWe enter the blinds at early morning, in the dark, and exit after sunset as to not disturb these protected animals.  Though we spend the entire daylight hours in the blinds, they are snug and cozy for a day-long stay.  During our time in the blinds it will be important to keep a low profile and stay very quiet in order to maximize our time with the wildlife attracted to the provided food.  Picnic lunches and hot drinks are provided to photographers in the blinds.

We will each have two days of shooting from within the larger eagle blind and one day in the smaller blind that is more actively frequented by the vultures (although both species may be seen at both blinds).
Along with eagles and vultures, ravens, magpies and hooded crows frequent this banquet, and red foxes are common visitors.  Vultures, in typical vulture fashion, circle above the blind before coming to the carcass.  Then they squabble, as vultures do, before settling in to feast.  We expect many photogenic natural history moments during our photo sessions.

Both of these photo blinds are located in remote mountain locations requiring 4x4 vehicles to transport us and our gear to our shooting sites.  (BLD)
Day 7
Today is a travel day as we make our way south towards Lake Kerkini in Northern Greece.  The drive takes about five hours and yields relatively few photo opportunities.  Closeup of pelican eyeWe arrive at the lake in the late afternoon where we capture the last light of the day and have our first meeting with the spectacular Dalmatian pelicans.
Days 8–10
We start the day at first light.  From three private boat trips on Lake Kerkini and three feeding sessions from the shore we have ample time during these three days to capture amazing images of Dalmatian pelicans.  Our small low boats allow us to attract pelicans out onto the lake with food to where it is easy to control the background and the optimal direction of the light while hand-holding your camera.  By hand-holding the camera, the response time to photographing the pelicans and gulls as they fly in towards the boat is much faster.  Shooting from the shore also has photographic advantages.  Using a long lens on a tripod allows distant floating birds to be isolated against clean backgrounds.  Like in the boats, the pelicans come extremely close—sometimes inches away—where shore shooting can facilitate ultra low-level images.  With wide-angle lenses, large groups of interacting birds can all be fit into the frame and more of a dramatic sky or a snowy mountain background can be accentuated from a low wide angle position.
Dalmatian pelicans are the world's largest and heaviest pelicans—three times larger than the more familiar brown pelican of North America.  In fact, they rank among the world's heaviest flying birds—and what incredible flyers they are!  With wingspans that rival the great albatrosses, these elegant soaring birds can be seen high in the sky, their flocks flying in graceful synchrony.

January and February is the time when Dalmatian pelicans gain their striking breeding plumage highlighted by curly silver-gray nape and crown feathers.  Their amazing bill—the second longest of any living bird—with its brilliant red pouch, and their watchful white eye surrounded by vibrant orange skin ranks them among the most graphically interesting large birds.

Dalmatian pelican numbers plunged precipitously during the 20th century due to wetland draining, poaching and disturbance to nest colonies.  Eagle in flight in BulgariaThese days their numbers have stabilized with an estimated world breeding population of 3,000–5,000 pairs—with the majority breeding in Russia.
Between pelican sessions we diversify our photography with a drive around Lake Kerkini to search for photo opportunities with little owls, crested larks, greater spotted eagles, common kingfishers, greater flamingos, pygmy cormorants and various ducks.  (BLD)
Day 11
We enjoy one more feeding session from the shore with the pelicans before we start our journey northward to Sofia.  (BLD)
Day 12  (January 28)
Following breakfast we transfer to the Sofia Airport for flights home.  (B)

A few words about visiting Bulgaria
For most westerners, Bulgaria remains a land of mystery.  This small Slavic nation in the southeastern corner of the Balkans has become established as a prime European destination for nature and travel photographers in almost any season.  Bulgaria's biodiversity is among the richest in Europe, protected, in part, in 3 national parks, 11 nature parks and 16 biosphere reserves.  The country is rich in photogenic scenery and old-world charm.  With the politics of communism behind them, this once secretive nation became a member nation of the European Union in 2007.  Now, Bulgaria's welcoming democratic government is happy to see visitors traveling unhindered throughout the country.
Print this Page

Joseph Van Os Photo Safaris Enrollment Information

Dalmatian Pelicans and Big Birds of Bulgaria

Jan 17, 2021 - Jan 28, 2021

A deposit and completed and signed Registration Form are required to reserve a place for you on a Joseph Van Os Photo Safari.


All prices are quoted in US dollars and all payments must be paid in US dollars. For deposit only, we accept Visa, MasterCard or American Express. Final payment of the trip fee is due 120 days priors to departure and must be paid by check or bank transfer. Trip deposits are non-refundable and non-transferable.

We must receive written notice of your cancellation, at which time cancellation fees in the following amounts apply:

If Written Cancellation is Received:
90 days or prior:
89 to 61 days prior:
60 or fewer days:
Cancellation Fee:
100% of deposit
50% of trip fee
100% of trip fee

No partial refunds are made for unused portions or services of a trip for any reason whatsoever. Trips are sold as a package only. This policy also applies to tour extensions and independent travel arrangements. Cancellation fees are not transferable.

Protect your travel investment and purchase a trip insurance policy that includes emergency evacuation coverage. A trip insurance brochure will be sent with your enrollment confirmation.

Joseph Van Os Photo Safaris are within the capabilities of average people in good health. Some of these trips require the capability of walking for several miles over uneven trails, stepping from a small boat to a wave-washed rocky beach, flying in small planes and helicopters, and occasionally hiking at high elevations—all while carrying an assortment of camera equipment. If you have concerns about your own capabilities and/or fitness as it relates to a trip, please inquire with our office before reserving a space. By forwarding a signed Registration Form and trip deposit, you certify that you do not knowingly have any physical or other conditions of disability that would create a risk for you or other trip participants and you agree to inform our office in writing if changes in your health occur any time prior to the tour. We reserve the right to request a doctor's statement of good health. The company's or trip leader's judgment shall provide the ultimate determination of an individual's ability to embark upon or to continue a trip. Once a trip has been confirmed, medical circumstances will not be considered as exceptions to our cancellation policy. We assume no responsibility for medical care or for special dietary requirements. “Meatless” meals are normally available at most locations. Due to the remote nature of many photo locations, and the growing diversity of today’s dietary trends, participants requiring special food items are encouraged to bring their own.

Tour members are asked to refrain from smoking with or near the group.

Participants will receive three emails before the trip departs: 1. Initial Tour Information sheet confirms the deposit and provides pre-departure information. 2. Invoice/Practical Information provides clothing and photo gear recommendations, climate data, applicable health advisories and reading list. Visa information will also be included (if applicable). 3. Final Tour Information includes arrival instructions, itinerary revisions (if any), hotel addresses, trip telephone contact information and participant list. We provide the trip leader's telephone number(s) and/or e-mail address with final documents so you can inquire about special photographic questions you may have regarding your trip. We welcome your calls or e-mail messages to info@photosafaris.com.

Information supplied upon enrollment describes the specific costs that are included in your trip fee. Generally these costs include lodging in double room occupancy, all meals (specified in the itinerary as BLD denoting breakfast, lunch or dinner), ground transportation during the trip in vans or small busses, air transportation as specified, meal and baggage tipping, and guide services provided by the trip leaders. Not included are airfare or other transportation from your home to the trip staging location, airport departure taxes, insurance, alcoholic beverages and bar expenses (plus bottled water and soft drink expenses on international tours outside of North America), tips and gratuities to local guides abroad, phone calls, passport or visa expenses, laundry or items of a personal nature. Gratuities to Joseph Van Os Photo Safaris trip leaders are optional and always appreciated. Rates are based on group tariffs; if the trip does not have sufficient registration, a small party supplement may be charged.

Single accommodations are available for a supplemental cost in many locations; see the pre-departure trip information or call our office for details. You will be charged the single supplement fee if you desire single accommodations or if you wish to have a roommate, but one is not available. In some remote locations, clients with single rooms are infrequently compelled to share a room due to circumstances beyond our control. In such cases, appropriate per diem refunds will be made reflecting the direct cost of the single room at the facility where clients are required to share. There is no additional single supplement fee on ship-based cruises, if you request a roommate and one is not available.

Cost increases may occur unexpectedly due to rising costs of airfares, ground transport, fuel surcharges, accommodations and currency fluctuations, among others. Joseph Van Os Photo Safaris, Inc. may be compelled to amend prices, and we reserve the right to do so without prior notice. An increase in trip prices shall not be sufficient grounds for any refund of funds paid for the trip other than as determined by the terms of our cancellation policy.

Whenever possible, our trip participants are lodged in comfortable, modern hotels. We select among the best available accommodations, but refrain from extravagance. Some interesting photographic destinations are far removed from modern amenities, however, and where necessary we will be accommodated in rustic country inns, cabins or tented camps.

Meals are always a special part of our trips for the camaraderie they engender and the opportunity they provide to try new foods from different areas. Depending on the trip and specific locale, participants order restaurant meals from the full menu or, less frequently, table d'hôte. Some trips include picnic lunches in the field. Fruit juice for breakfast and coffee or tea are included with the meals. Soft drinks are included with meals on tours within North America. Participants are responsible for their own bar tab (including bottled water, soft drinks and alcoholic beverages on tours outside of North America) at restaurant lunches and dinners.

Our itineraries are intended as examples only. Participants should allow for flexibility due to changes in weather, natural history or cultural events, or other logistical arrangements deemed necessary by Joseph Van Os Photo Safaris, Inc. or our leaders.

The second tour leader (and any subsequent additional leaders) listed for each trip on the website will be added as the group size warrants. If only one space remains on a trip, and logistics permit, we accept two persons traveling together, even if it exceeds the trip maximum.

Joseph Van Os Photo Safaris, Inc. and/or their Agents act only as agents for the passenger in regard to travel including, but not limited to, sightseeing, meals, lodging, transportation, and all other services whether by railroad, motorcar, motor coach, boat, ship or aircraft and they assume no liability for injury, damage, loss, accident, delay or irregularity which may be occasioned either by reason of defect in any vehicle or for any reason whatsoever, or through the acts or default of any company or person engaged in conveying the passenger or in carrying out the arrangements of the trip.

They can accept no responsibility for losses or additional expenses due to delay or changes in air or other services, sickness, weather, strike, war, volcanic eruption, terrorist acts, political unrest, quarantine or other causes. All such losses or expenses will have to be borne by the passenger, as trip fees provide for arrangements only for the times and locations stated. Baggage is at the owner's risk entirely.

The right is reserved to 1) substitute hotels of similar category for those indicated and to make any changes in the itinerary or transport where deemed necessary, or caused by changes in air schedules or equipment substitution; 2) cancel any trip prior to departure, in which case full refund of the paid trip funds will be given, but Joseph Van Os Photo Safaris, Inc. is not responsible for any other trip preparation expenses such as penalized or non-refundable air tickets, visa fees and medical related expenses; 3) substitute trip leader(s) for the leader(s) originally specified, in which case the substitution is not a basis for participant cancellation or refund other than provided by our normal cancellation policy; or 4) accept or retain any person as a member of any trip.

Trip prices are based on tariffs and exchange rates in effect at the time of publication and are subject to adjustment in the event of any change therein.

A Registration Form including the Release and Assumption of Risk section must be signed by each participant prior to the commencement of the trip. Participation by any trip member will be declined in the absence of the signed Registration Form including the Release and Assumption of Risk section, with no trip fee refund. No modification to the Registration Form including the Release and Assumption of Risk section will be accepted.

Should Joseph Van Os Photo Safaris, Inc., or anyone acting on their behalf be required to incur attorney's fees and costs to enforce this agreement, the enrolling trip participant(s) agree(s) to indemnify and hold them harmless for all such fees and costs. In the event a lawsuit is filed, the enrolling participant(s) agree(s) to do so solely in the County of Lewis in the State of Washington. Certain ship owners require the use of pre-printed ticket forms that limit the ship owner's and operator's liability. When such tickets are used, the passenger is bound by the terms of these tickets with respect to the passenger's legal relationship to the owners and operators of the ship, their agents (Joseph Van Os Photo Safaris, Inc.), and the ship's crew.

Dalmatian Pelicans and Big Birds of Bulgaria: Easy Activity Level

Van travel. Easy walking for short distances. Some icy conditions possible.  Potential deep snow in some areas with trampled, compacted paths.  Short boat trips in small boats on smooth water.  Expect cold temperatures.  Toilet facilities available in photo blinds.
Trip Details
Jan 17 - Jan 28, 2021
Fee: $6,395 from Sofia, Bulgaria
Deposit: $800
Limit: 8 participants
Activity Level: EasyEasy
  • Photograph Dalmatian pelicans—world’s largest, rarest, most spectacular—in winter
  • Three days to capture images of the pelicans from a small private boats and on shore—often at close range
  • Trip timed for the height of pelican breeding plumage—silver-feathered crown and nape, massive bill with red pouch
  • Three days to “shoot” golden eagles and griffon vultures in the wild from comfortable heated blinds
  • Discover Bulgaria, one of Europe’s great new destinations for bird and nature photographers
Tour Leaders
James Rogerson

James Rogerson