Dalmatian Pelicans and Big Birds of Bulgaria 2020 Trip Report

By Joe Van Os on Feb 13, 2020

If Bernie Sanders were a bird, he would obviously be a Dalmatian pelican. Both Bernie and these big charismatic birds sport a white flyaway mop-top that would necessitate an entire tube of Brylcreem to keep under control.

For photographers, perhaps the world’s most accessible colony of Dalmatian pelicans is at Lake Kerkini in Greece, a short distance south of the Bulgarian border. These amazing and very photogenic pelicans are the world’s largest and they had been on my bucket list for quite some time. And when I finally got to shoot them last month, they did not disappoint. For European nature photographers, it’s just a short flight to Sophia, Bulgaria or Thessaloniki, Greece and a few hours drive to reach the lake. For North Americans, it’s a decidedly longer expedition, but there are plenty of additional things to see and photograph in Greece once you get there—and it’s definitely worth getting there!

Dalmatian pelican portraitAt lake Kerkini we spent four days photographing the pelicans from small boats as well as from the shore. Both methods produce good photography opportunities and diverse imagery. The boats made it easy to position ourselves relative to the birds. We could quickly move the boat when we wanted to change backgrounds and lighting. Since the birds are being fed, they routinely follow the boats out on the lake where great in-flight shots are can be taken.

Shooting from shore, tripods come into play and larger lenses like 500mm and 600mm big glass can be used for telephoto compression shots of the birds juxtaposed against mountain backgrounds.  Also, on the shoreline you can get right down to the water’s edge allowing for ultra-low-level shots of the birds as they gather to be fed—almost within touching distance. Mats are conveniently supplied by some local tour operators to allow photographers to lay on the ground along the shore for low angle shots. But for me, these days, without a boom crane to lift me back up, that simply is not an option! Fortunately, my mirrorless camera body has a flexible touch screen display that compensates for my increasing physical inflexibility.

A trio of pelicans in flightLake Kerkini is an artificial reservoir created on what was once an extensive marsh.  Starting in 1932, large embankments were built on the eastern and western flanks of the marsh and were connected by a dam over the Strymon River. Over the years, the reservoir and dam silted up necessitating enlarging the embankments and building a new dam in the early 1980s. Around 20 years ago, unique wooden nesting platforms were created on pilings in the lake and as many as 100 pairs of pelicans now have nests on them.  There is no safe nesting habitat on the lakeshore so there is a hope that funds and permits might be available in the future to scrap the wooden platforms and create permanent rocky islands for the birds to nest on.

The Dalmatian Pelican, Pelecanus crispus, is listed as “Vulnerable” on the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species. Its once huge numbers—possibly as many as a million birds—continues to decline to an estimated worldwide population of between 10,000–20,000 individuals including 4,000–5,000 breeding pairs. The species breeds in a variety of wetlands and has a wide but fragmented distribution stretching from east and southeast Europe, to Mongolia and up to the coasts of China and Hong Kong.

So, what about those “Big Birds of Bulgaria”?

Spotted nutcracker on mossy branchOur group first assembled in Sophia, Bulgaria. A day after our orientation walk in the capital city, we set out into the mountains to a ski resort where spotted nutcrackers Nucifraga caryocatactes (a.k.a. Eurasian nutcrackers) have been habituated by picnickers over the years. These nutcrackers can be remarkably tame (as are the closely related Clark’s nutcrackers of North America) and are both photogenic and easy to shoot. We all enjoyed a lengthy, snowy, photo shoot with these cheeky birds.

We then drove into central Bulgaria for our planned days of photography with golden eagles and griffin vultures from photo blinds in the Eastern Rhodope Mountains. Using four-wheel-drive vehicles, we traversed some amazingly rough roads (like those usually featured in Jeep commercials!) to get into the blinds before first light.

That all worked well. Rough Jeep travel, no problem. Bait placed in the predawn hours at the photo blinds awaiting the birds, check. Comfortable blinds and adequate food, coffee and facilities, check.  BUT the birds were not cooperative, and when the eagles did come in they came at first light and grabbed the food and flew off with it. Or they came for the last gasp of light when it was almost too dark to shoot—or for most of the day they didn’t come at all.  So, we could have called this portion of the trip the “Big Bird Bust of Bulgaria”.  (Though some trip participants did get a few eagle and vulture shots and great fox images one morning.)

So, would I repeat that part of the trip again?  No.

However, those pelicans are simply too good to miss and are worthy of inclusion on any nature photographer’s bucket list. Our 2021 itinerary is now being revised and will be online soon with the new trip modification. Once it is complete it will be announced by a future email.  If you are not currently on our email list, you can sign up to receive it HERE.