Discover an original idea for an enjoyable vacation at the Pomorie Lake Volunteer Brigade! For a one-week bird-watching vacation on Pomorie Lake (Bulgaria), I helped to transfer about 2 tons of sand, got a present from the local rubbish, made new friends, and connected to the citizen science social movement via the iNaturalist app. The starting point is visiting the Pomorie Lake Visitor Centre where you can learn about the local biodiversity and choose the best volunteer project to join.

Infographic about useful resources for birding
Infographic 4 Useful Resources for Birdwatching in Bulgaria. © Tatyana Garkavaya

Half-Time Holidays with Full-time Fun

I learned about the ‘Green Balkans Volunteer Brigade at Pomorie Lake’ during a bird-watching excursion on the lake in June. Pomorie Lake is one of the best bird-watching spots in Europe with over 250 species.

The Brigade was set up over 20 years ago. The project represents a mix of work, learning, and recreation. Interestingly it was organized by an environmental but not a tourist organization, like most holidays in this coastal region.

 This type of holiday is quite labour-intensive but it’s more enjoyable than standard vocations because it’s more eventful. To get it right, it’s essential to understand the structure and principles of the Brigade.

During four morning hours, we worked on three tasks: transferring sand from the bank of the lake to an artificial island, removing weeds by hand, and collecting litter. The goal was to restore the artificial islands and create for birds comfortable conditions for nesting and rest during migration.

Manual labor is the only feasible solution in nature reserves where the use of chemicals and massive machines is forbidden.

In the afternoon time, for about three hours, we spent on educational activities: bird ringing, lectures on the biodiversity of Pomorie Lake, cetaceans of the Black Sea, and vultures in Bulgaria.

  • Pomorie Lake: My Unforgettable Eco Vacation with Bird Therapy

Most of all I enjoyed a workshop about citizen science with the use of iNaturalist app by Stanimira Deleva, a biologist, cave researcher, and PhD student at the University of Costa Rica.  Citizen science is gaining popularity during the pandemic.

infographic how to make observations with inaturalist
Infographic How to Make Observations with iNaturalist app. © Tatyana Garkavaya

Because of travel restrictions and quarantines, scientists all over the world cannot move freely and continue their studies. Ordinary people can support many research activities by taking pictures of nature with mobile phones and uploading them to citizen science websites, like iNaturalist.

The species will be identified by academics, so the authors of the images can also learn a lot about the natural wonders around them.

Becoming a Citizen Scientist

Nikolai Kolev with a lovely mantis at pomorie lake
Science observations as a lifestyle: Nikolai Kolev with a lovely mantis (Empusa fasciata). © Tatyana Garkavaya

The composition of our group was changing all the time. Some people volunteered for a weekend only, others stayed for the whole period. Roughly, there were two groups, environmental professionals and general nature lovers, like me. 

Nikolai Kolev from Radnevo (Stara Zagora) was one of the most outstanding volunteers who cannot be attributed to either group. He’s an avid birdwatcher and a keen citizen scientist who was among the first in Bulgaria to undergo special training for bird identification by Nord University (Norway). And this has allowed him to improve the methods of working with the data. For over six years he has been collecting bird observations and sharing the data with Bulgarian environmental organizations.

His job in the power industry is not related to the environment. Taking nature photography and monitoring different species are fascinating hobbies. But his highly qualitative and systematic observations have gained him the respect of professional ecologists.

Nikolay’s Facebook account is the best representation of his long-term passion. An impressive well-systematized image collection of birds, butterflies, and plants from different Bulgarian regions! Every single species is named so the albums are a great guide to Bulgarian natural treasures.

The great achievement of this year’s Brigade for Nikolai was shots of 3 very rare birds: flamingo, sanderling, and red knot. Every morning he came to the site several hours earlier than us and took a lot of impressive images. We enjoyed hid daily stories and beautiful photographs that guided our first steps in citizen science.

Symbolic findings from a trash dump

For two days I collected litter together with the first volunteers of the Brigade that joined the project 24 years ago. Despite living in different countries, every year they plan a common holiday in Pomorie for the first week of September, the usual time of the Brigade. It’s become a good tradition to work with spades at the lake in the morning and relax with a beer at the sea in the afternoon.

Stefan Ivanov launches a kite found in the garbage
‘It’s absolutely functional!’: Volunteer Stefan Ivanov launches a kite found in the garbage. © Tatyana Garkavaya

I was particularly impressed by the importance of symbols for one of the veterans Stefan Ivanov: ‘I was born on 22 April, Earth Day, so it’s very symbolic and logical that I need to be constantly connected to nature and support environmental causes’. 

The litter we collected also contained a lot of symbolic findings. Having extracted a plastic kite of a pile of rubbish, Stefan immediately launched it and enthusiastically proclaimed: ‘It’s absolutely functional! Let it be the symbol of our Brigade!’

a coffee saucer from the garbage
A memorable gift from my most meaningful holidays: a coffee saucer from the garbage. © Tatyana Garkavaya

Another Stefan’s finding was a tiny coffee saucer with a traditional Bulgarian design. ‘It’s in good condition! Let it be a memorable present for you from this year’s Brigade’, – joyfully concluded Stefan and gave me the clay saucer.

Every year, the volunteers of the Brigade collect over 50 bags of garbage around the Lake. Mountains of rubbish in the gypsy quarter on the opposite bank are the main sources of pollution of Pomorie Lake and its inhabitants.

The artificial islands of Pomorie Lake are not among the frequently visited tourist attractions and not among the TOP 3 places for selfy in Pomorie, so local authorities are reluctant to clear up the landscapes in this part of the city.

Balancing self-governance and self-entertainment

The basic framework of the Brigade’s timetable was coordinated by Green Balkans but the management of the communication and some activities were co-coordinated with volunteers. Many of them were students who intended to work for conservation reserves.

The key person that facilitated communication was our youngest activist 19-year-old Mina Popova, a participant in two Brigades. A student of ecology and the protection of the environment at Plovdiv University, Mina aims to learn reserves’ functions from different sides. In her hometown Plovdiv, she volunteers a lot with local museums and environmental NGOs to raise public awareness of environmental issues.

Volunteer Mina Popova balances PR & work
Exploring the Brigade from different sides: Volunteer Mina Popova balances PR & work. © Tatyana Garkavaya

Another important activist who captured most of our activities was Alexander Petkov, in the photo below. He studies landscape ecology and the protection of the environment in Germany but wants to work in Bulgaria because there’s more natural diversity in his home country. He participated in the Brigade for the second time and treated it as practical complementary training.

Volunteer Alexander Petkov
Volunteer Alexander Petkov is responsible for documenting all the activities of the Conservation Volunteer Brigade Pomorie Lake 2020. © Tatyana Garkavaya

To make the working process more enjoyable, we picked up any expression of creativity that helped to spice up repetitive and quite hard work. 

For the three days, we enjoyed ourselves by posing for a documentary made by Hobby TV. They filmed us from the air, land, and water. In turn, we filmed them and took selfies. Miroslav Tonev, a Hobby TV cameraman with a degree in biology became a part of our team. 

 Miroslav provided us with practical advice on how to be productive while working in high temperatures. It’s essential to have a bottle of salty water to keep water and salt balance in the body and a bottle of sweet water with a bit of sugar to keep energy and avoid tiredness (food in the heat, in contrast, deprives of energy).

Our youngest volunteers (seven schoolchildren from Sofia) several times initiated the Broken Telephone game trying to entertain a live chain staying in muddy water and transferring sand. But every time the game came upon a generation gap. Having heard another phrase sent from the youngsters, some older volunteers tactfully noted that it would be better to do a foot spa in silence otherwise the Broken Telephone risks turning from a game into a reality. 

…Regardless of their ages and professions, everyone treated the volunteer vacation as motivational therapy, a great opportunity to learn about oneself and nature by supporting nature conservation. This type of experience is not about a one-time holiday, it’s something one wants to make a natural part of life. In one accord, we agreed to stay in touch and repeat bird therapy next year.

A farewell photo of the Pomorie Lake Volunteer Brigade 2020. © Green Balkans

Find more ‘Cultural Insights’ in the section Places of this blog.

Images: Polina Hristova, Alexander Petkov, Nikolai Kolev, Martin Georgiev, Tatyana Garkavaya, Daniela Bogoeva, Aneliya Pavlova, Stanimira Deleva, Dimitar Todorov & Ivan

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