TRIP REPORT, North West Bulgaria into Eastern Serbia, 16 - 25 JULY 2018
Flying into, and out of Sofia, Alan Bernard and I made a short trip to the western end of the Balkan Mountains, the 'Stara Planina' on 17th July with only five full days in the field and with Nymphalis vau-album as the coveted species. Half of the time was based in the small Bulgarian town of Čiprovci set amongst lush meadows and heavily wooded hillsides where small-scale agriculture remained the norm and where roadside verges and bushes had been spared the ravages of the tractor.
The Ogosta valley, in which Čiprovci sits, has a road running parallel to the river through the few houses comprising Martinovo and up into the hills where it ends. This is a superb general habitat with verdant meadows and side tracks producing at least 44 species on our first full day, notable being five species of Coppers, a solitary Brown Hairstreak (Thecla betulae) totally preoccupied on stream-side mint, Large Blue (Phengaris arion), a single Blue Argus (Aricia anteros), unexpected second generation Duke of Burgundy (Hamearis lucina), fast-flying and unidentifiable Emperors, and six Fritillary species.
Staying pretty local the next day we followed another blind road up into the hills through Gavril Genovo to the end of the tarmac at Diva Slatina close to the Serbian border stopping several times en route. Once again, this road passes through wonderful wooded habitat and flowery meadows, home to Large Grizzled Skipper (Pyrgus alveus), Common Glider (Neptis Sappho), Chequered Blue (Scolitantides orion), and four additional Fritillaries.
A visit to relative altitude at the Kom ski hostel (c1,750 metres) located south through Berkovica repeated the richness of the first two days, the lush meadows tucked in the beech tree clearings on the way revealing large male Cardinals (Argynnis pandora). Further up, we encountered Nickerl's Fritillary (Melitaea aurelia), Large Ringlet (Erebia euryale) - once we'd finally satisfied ourselves that we weren't looking at Arran Browns (Erebia ligea) - and also Almond-eyed Ringlet (Erebia alberganus).
The transit day to Serbia did not offer many impromptu stopping places although the Vidbol river bridge 10km north of Dimovo on the way to Gramada had puddling groups of Scarce Swallowtails (Iphiclides podalirius), Wood Whites (Leptidea sinapis) and Grizzled Skippers (Pyrgus malvae). With only four cars in front of us at the border at Vraska Cuka it still took half an hour to pass through the bureaucracy. A monoculture landscape of sunflowers stretched before and all around us as we headed into Serbia, and although pleasing on the eye and for bees, it was a far cry from the habitats previously enjoyed. This, and a fast road south, encouraged us to push on to our next hotel, the huge and excellent Stara Planina at Ćuštica where we duly arrived around 5pm.
But on the way and close by, Alan took me to a site where the False Comma (Nymphalis vau-album) also referred to as the Compton Tortoiseshell, is known to fly and where he'd seen it on a previous trip, and after some searching he spotted one flying high around the roof line of a large building, appearing to be seeking out a roosting spot. Suddenly it swooped down to ground level and entered an open-fronted wood store followed quickly by us. With camera at the ready I managed to rattle off two quick shots before it rapidly exited and disappeared. Brilliant!
The remainder of our time in this mountainous area near the hotel was shared at the top of the ski slope at Jabučko Ravnište at around 1,750 metres in the morning where a Woodland Grayling (Hipparchia fagi) was hill-topping as some other species also paid a fleeting visit. On the way down we picked up a solitary Bulgarian Ringlet (Erebia orientalis), Woodland Ringlet (Erebia medusa) and Eastern Baton Blue (Pseudophilotes vicrama). The afternoon was spent lower down in the meadows near Janja, around 850m, once again typified by small scale farms, extravagant meadows and streams. Tumble-down barns and old army trucks completed the scene. A single tired Southern White Admiral (Limenitis reducta) was the only new addition to our list but the large Fritillaries were common. Earlier in the day we had checked-out the various smaller whites and recorded a Balkan Green-veined White (Pieris balcana).
We concluded the trip exploring the lovely Toplodolska valley all the way to the hamlet of Topli Do nestling some 18km at the end of the road. The valley initially passes through limestone outcrops then red sandstone giving way to conglomerate, a geologist's heaven. The vegetation is full and butterfly rich with Meleager's Blue (Polyommatus daphnis), Adonis Blue (Polyommatus bellargus) and Chalkhill Blues (Polyommatus coridon) the males appearing almost white in flight, readily seen. In the village two very ancient Hungarian Gliders (Neptis rivularis) put in a fluttering appearance and Alan saw a Lesser Lattice Brown (Kirinia climene) these being the final new species for the trip bringing the grand total to 81.
This article was previously published in the Newsletter of the European Butterfly Group