Nature and Wildlife of Eastern Rhodopes – by Crossbill Guides

A warm welcome to this page about the nature and wildlife of the Eastern Rhodopes, Bulgaria. This website accompanies the Crossbill nature travel guide with the same name. This is an online Crossbill Guide ‘light’ for the armchair traveller. It offers some general insights and images to prepare you for your visit, plus some practical information, sites and a free route from the Crossbill Guide. Enjoy!

The Eastern Rhodopes in southern Bulgaria is perhaps the most recently ‘discovered’ wildlife destination in Europe. This remote and wild part of the country still remains little visited. Many parts are difficult to explore due to the lack of roads and trails, but a small, young, and very friendly community of ecotourism enterprises centered around Madzharovo makes a visit to this region really easy, even for the individual traveler.

The Rhodopes are a long east-west mountain chain that forms the border between Bulgaria and Greece. The western part is much higher than the eastern, which is rocky and has a distinct Mediterranean-continental climate. At first glance, the Eastern Rhodopes looks like a wild version of southern France or Spain – a mixture of cliffs, scrub, flowery grasslands and woodlands, riddled with beautiful rivers. Ecologically however, its position on the edge of the Mediterranean and steppe biomes of the Near East means that it boasts a very high diversity of (for West Europeans) very exotic species. The birdlife is magnificent, but so are the plants, the insects and wildflowers.

Landscape of the Eastern Rhodopes

Where are the Eastern Rhodopes?

The Rhodope mountains form the border between Greece and Bulgaria. They gradually decrease in altitude towards the east until they peter out on the plains of the Maritsa which forms the border with European Turkey (and is called Evros in Greece). Upstream, this river bends westwards and thereby also forms the northern border of the Rhodopes. In the west, the large valley of the River Varbitsa is generally considered the somewhat vague transition between the western and eastern part of the range.

Eastern Rhodopes – both crossroads and periphery

The Eastern Rhodopes is a special place for two reasons.
First, the landscape is wild and unscathed. For much of the past the Eastern Rhodopes have been at the periphery, a borderland, as it remains today, with Bulgaria, Greece and Turkey. And as so often, it is in this periphery that nature thrives.
Second, the Eastern Rhodopes is a meeting place of three different biological realms. There is the central European biome (which is dominant in the higher and damper western Rhodopes). Typical of this biome are the dense forests of Beech and, in warmer places, Downy and Sessile oaks. Then there’s the Mediterranean element of shrubby slopes of drought-resistant flora and fauna that creeps up from the south. Finally comes the dry grassy slopes are the western forerunners of the steppes of the Pontic (Black Sea) and Anatolian (Turkish) plains.

European habitats in the blender

On the ground, these three elements are not neatly separated – steppe-like grasslands merge into open woodlands in one place and into scrublands in the next. The flora and fauna are  an equal blend of all these flavours. One example: the shrikes. You can find Red-backed Shrike (central European), Woodchat Shrike (Mediterranean), Lesser Grey Shrike (steppes of eastern Europe) and Masked Shrike (east-Mediterranean) in the Eastern Rhodopes and often in more or less the same place.
This blended habitat is unique to the Eastern Rhodopes and creates a special and highly landscape.

Steppes

The larger areas of steppes are found in the eastern part of the region. The winter cold and summer heat make tree growth difficult, except along water courses. In rocky places, the grasslands are mixed with shrubs, but where the soil is deeper, the ‘true steppes’ occur. The keystone animal here is the Suslik, an adorable ground squirrel that makes elaborate underground burrows. It is the favourite prey of a large number of predators, such as the Eastern Imperial Eagle and the Marbled Polecat. Many of the most sought-after birds inhabit the steppes: Roller, Isabelline Wheatear and Calandra Lark for example.

Scrub and open woodland

The mix of shrubs, small trees and light oak woods forms the habitat of a hugely varied wildlife. One special aspect is the scale of undisturbed habitats: large parts of the Rhodope mountains are uninhabited. The traditional villages are small and focus on sheep husbandry and growing a few crops in the river valleys. In such a wild environment, there are is still room for wolves, golden jackals and wildcats, for various species of eagles and vultures. A large number of tortoises, lizards and snakes also occupy this habitat.

Rivers and wetlands

Unspoilt or nearly so, the Rhodope rivers are natural treasures. They carry a large amount of water in wet winters and in early spring, but nearly dry out in the hot summers. This water regime of cyclical abundance and shortage of water typically creates broad valleys with braided flows that snake around pebble banks and wooded islands. A very typical bird here is the Black Stork, which is very common. In the lower sections there are wetlands with colonies of Night Herons, Pygmy Cormorants and Little Bitterns.

Beech forests

The beech forests take a secondary position in the western Rhodopes. As they need a damp environment, the beech does well in the higher and rainier western Rhodopes, but here in the east they are limited to the higher and steeper north slopes.
Beech forests support many wildflowers and insects that are present elsewhere in Europe, such as Black, Grey-headed and White-backed Woodpeckers. They are also the site for the endemic, yellow-flowered Rhodope Lily.

Rewilding Rhodopes

In recent years, people are moving out of the mountains. Tending sheep is becoming an increasingly unattractive means of living. In an attempt to bring back biodiversity and increase ecotourism as a viable and sustainable economic model for the local people, the Rhodopes are being ‘rewilded’. Native grazing animals that have disappeared, such as European Bison, Red Deer and semi-wild Konik horses were brought back to the mountains, where they maintain the grasslands, are food for the wild predators and add to the tourism potential of the region.

The naturalist top 10

Ten highlights of your visit to the Eastern Rhodopes

The vulture cliffs near Madzharovo offers first class views of Griffon and Egyptian Vultures, Black Storks, Black-eared Wheatears, various eagles and many other birds.

Take a trip into the mountains and enjoy the wild landscapes, the small villages and friendly people.

Track down the remnants of Thracian culture in the countryside, as well as the contemporary Pomak culture, the original inhabitants of these mountains.

Rest beside the picture-perfect rivers such as the Arda, Byala Reka and Krumovitsa. Black Storks are almost guaranteed, Levant’s Sparrowhawks, Rollers, Bee-eaters, various species of snakes, rare wildflowers and butterflies are also in the cards.

Various extremely localised plants and animals occur in the Eastern Rhodopes could be the specific target of your trip: Haberlea, Pontic Fritillary, Bulgarian Emerald, Small Bath White, Jackal, Marbled Polecat, Dahl’s Whip Snake or Sand Boa – The list is endless.

Go search the recently reintroduced animals in the mountains, like tarpans (koniks), European Bison and Red Deer.

There are various photo hides for wildlife photography, including, vultures, eagles and, with luck jackals.

Enjoy the wide variety of geological features, such as calderas, columnar basalts and stone mushrooms.

Visit the steppes with the adorable susliks and their fearsome predator, the Eastern Imperial Eagle.

Search for south-eastern orchids like the Turkish Helleborine and the Balkan Lizard Orchid.

Birds, butterflies and wildflowers  – The flora and fauna of the Eastern Rhodopes

Flora

The slopes of the Eastern Rhodopes are very flowery in spring. The beautiful drifts of Grape Hyacinths, Peacock Anemones and Perfoliate Alexander’s are superb, but not always very diverse. There are a number of botanical hotspots in the region, and new ones are discovered annually. Some unique species are the endemic Rhodope Lily and the rock-dwelling Haberlea (see top 10 species). Both are rare and localised. Much more conspicuous are the Christ-thorn bushes, with their typical zigzag branches. It is the larval food plant of the splendid Little Tiger Blue butterfly (see also top 10). The Purple Clematis winds itself in its branches. In river beds the parasitic Rhodopean Toothwort is a must-see for wildflower lovers.
Orchids are widespread in the hillsides and include a number of southern and Eastern rarities, such as Eastern Lizard, Mammose, Horned Woodcock and Pink Butterfly orchids and Turkish Helleborine.

Birds

If the Eastern Rhodopes is one thing above everything else, it is a region for birdwatchers. Due to the wild landscape and position at a crossroads of temperate woodlands, eastern steppes and Mediterranean scrublands, the diversity is immense. Many bird species are widespread across the region, but often in low numbers, making birdwatching both challenging and rewarding.

The Eastern Rhodopes is, together with the Greek Dadia on the other side of the border, considered the European region with the largest diversity of raptors. Griffon, Black and Egyptian Vultures are all present, as are Golden, Eastern Imperial, Lesser Spotted, Short-toed and Booted Eagles.
Even richer is the community of songbirds in the scrublands on the slopes. hills. Sombre Tit, Masked Shrike, Western Rock Nuthatch, Eastern Olivaceous, Eastern Orphean, Olive-Tree, Barred and Subalpine Warblers, Cirl, Ortolan and Black-headed Buntings – the list is long. A full list is available as a download on the guidebook webpage.

Reptiles and amphibians

The southern Balkans, including the Eastern Rhodopes are the European hotspot for reptiles and amphibians. Some are really easy to find. In the forests, two tortoises, Herman’s and Spur-thighed, are easily seen and heard (they are very noisy in the leaf litter). In the rivers, European Pond Terrapin and Balkan Terrapin are frequent. Two big lizards are common throughout – the Green Lizard (with blue-throated males) and Three-lined Lizard (with yellow-throated males). Less conspicuous but still widespread are Kotschy’s Gecko, the very large, legless European Glass Lizard and many snakes, including the rare and spectacular Nose-horned Viper and the bulky Sand Boa.
The amphibian life is equally proliferous. Yellow-bellied Toads are common in small puddles in the woodlands. Marsh Frogs and Green Toads are common along the rivers and Tree Frogs in the marshes.

Butterflies and dragonflies

Few butterfly and dragonfly lovers have explored the Eastern Rhodopes as yet. Generally speaking, there are more butterflies in the higher mountains of the Western Rhodopes and there are more dragonflies in the coastal zones with the larger wetlands.
This being said, the diversity of the Eastern Rhodopes remains impressive. Widespread butterflies like Marsh Fritillary, Clouded Apollo, Silver-studded Blue, Eastern Festoon and Silver-washed Fritillary are very common. Sought-after species include the Small Bath White, Little Tiger Blue (common here) and Lattice Brown.
Among the dragonflies are several rarities too. The Bulgarian Emerald is restricted to just a few rivers in the southern Balkans and therefore the greatest specialty of the Eastern Rhodopes. Other southeastern specialties include Odalisque, Balkan Emerald, Eastern Spectre and Balkan Goldenring.

Top 10 species

Ten superb plant and animal species of the Eastern Rhodopes.

The Eastern Rhodopes have one of the few thriving populations of Griffon (and Egyptian) Vultures of Eastern Europe. The Black Vulture is present too, but breeds on the Greek side of the mountains.

A beautiful bird with a small distribution, here at the northern limit of its range.

A very common and visible animal, just like its look-alike, the Spur-thighed Tortoise.

A beautiful endemic of the Rhodope Mountains

An element of the the Turkish flora, this pretty orchid reaches its northwestern limit in the Eastern Rhodopes.

This little butterfly is common, conspicuous and beautiful in the scrubland. The caterpillars live on Christ Thorn.

An extremely rare dragonfly that is restricted to just a few river valleys in the Bulgarian-Turkish border area.

Europe’s only relative of the famous boa snakes.

One of the few plant species in the continent that survived all the ice ages. This relict from the tertiary grows on north-facing slopes and is a Rhodopi endemic.

Considered Europe’s largest insect – not dangerous, but a very impressive beast.

Routes and practicalities

Like much of Eastern Europe, access into the field is easy. Fencing and barbed wire is the rare exception, not the rule like so many places in the west. However, there are very few trails although good habitat is everywhere right along the roadside. This makes an exploration of the Eastern Rhodopes at once both easy and difficult. The few roads that connect the villages in these sparsely populated mountains are the most logical points of departure, and the few protected sites the obvious first stops on a visit.
Fortunately, there are guides and a visitors’ centre in Madzharovo that will help you on your way. And of course, the best routes, both car and walking routes, are described in our Crossbill guidebook on the Eastern Rhodopes.

Sustainable tourism

Nature-based tourism is actively encouraged as a means to create a sustainable future for both people and the environment in the Eastern Rhodopes. Threats to the area are mainly related to land abandonment. Much wildlife is associated with old forms of land use that are disappearing. Also, large infrastructural projects such as damming of rivers and the erection of ill-considered wind turbines on bird migration routes are a danger.
Your visit to the region is in and of itself supporting of nature conservation, as it gives a sustainable economic value to nature and wildlife, which is an incentive for its preservation.

Do’s

  • Buy local products from the shepherds, farmers and other locals. It is easy, always surprising and it supports traditional land use.
  • Support the local ecotourism community by staying in their guest houses, hiring their guides, booking a bird hides, etcetera.
  • Visit the nature conservation centre in Madzharovo, talk to the people there and see in what other ways you can support.
  • In general, show that you have come for wildlife and always be friendly to local people, in other words be an ambassador of nature tourism.

Don’ts

  • Obviously, don’t disturb wildlife. Especially the larger mammals and raptors are easily spooked, so keep a low profile.
  • Be careful when driving. Tortoises, snakes, lizards commonly rest on the road and are easily run over. Driving slow helps you to avoid collision and will also offer good viewing options. An added advantage is that the many potholes are easier to avoid.

The book

The Crossbill Guides are the most comprehensive nature travel guides available. Each Crossbill Guide covers in depth descriptions on landscape, habitats, geology and all the species groups, and links these to routes where this can be seen.

These routes are typically a mixture of walking routes and car routes with stops and short walks. Combined, these routes cover all the sites for birdwatching, butterflies, dragonflies, plants, mammals and reptiles. They are also set out to give you the finest examples of the ecosystems and geological features. In short, everything for nature lovers.

The Crossbill Guide that covers the Eastern Rhodopes also describes the adjacent region of Thrace in North-East Greece. In short, it contains:

  • 256 pages
  • 10 detailed routes and 13 additional sites in the Bulgarian Eastern Rhodopes (plus 8 routes and 10 sites in Greece)
  • detailed information on landscape, ecology, geology, landscape history, flora and fauna.
  • Where to watch birds information
  • Tips for wildlife watching and finding orchids

The authors

Dirk Hilbers (NL, 1976), set up the Crossbill Guides Foundation and travels Europe to research the guidebooks. This is the 17th guide he worked on. As a biologist, when not in the field, Dirk Hilbers is a free-lance writer and lecturer in the field of nature education and environmental ethics.

Alex Tabak (NL, 1976) is an ecologist specialised in field surveys of flora, vegetation, reptiles, amphibians and butterflies. He works partly in the Netherlands en partly in Greece.

Albert Vliegenthart (NL, 1975) works at de Vlinderstichting – the Dutch Butterfly Conservency, and is specialised in butterflies and dragonflies, next to being a keen birdwatcher.

Herman Dierickx (Be, 1958) is an author who has specialised in writing articles on environmental issues, nature and nature conservation in Belgium.

Crossbill Guides  – If you want to see more