Discover an original idea for an enjoyable vacation! 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, make new friends and connected to the citizen science social movement via the iNaturalist app.

Useful Resources for Bird Watching in Bulgaria by Cultural Insights
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 has a 24-year-old tradition and represents a mix of work, learning and recreation. Interestingly the project was organized by an environmental but not a tourist organization, like most holidays in this coastal region.

 This type of holidays is 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 create for birds comfortable conditions for nesting and rest during migration.

The manual labour is the only feasible solution in nature reserves where the use of chemicals and massive machines are forbidden.

The afternoon time, 2-3 hours, we spent on educational activities: bird ringing, lectures on biodiversity of Pomorie Lake, cetaceans of the Black sea and vultures in Bulgaria.

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

now to use inaturalist by insight

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 natural wonders around them.

Becoming a citizen scientist
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Science observations as a lifestyle: Nikolai Kolev with a lovely mantis (Empusa fasciata)

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 that cannot be attributed to either group. He’s a professional birdwatcher and a keen citizen scientist. 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 doing monitoring of different species are fascinating hobbies. But his highly qualitative and systematic observations have gained him respect 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.

Recently, Nikolai has done an online course on ornithology by Nord University (Norway), and this has allowed him to improve the methods of working with the data. 

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 us and got 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 from rubissh 1
‘It’s absolutely functional!’: Stefan Ivanov launches a kite found in garbage

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!’

Symbolic findings from a trash dump by Cultural Insights 1
A memorable gift from my most meaningful holidays: a coffee saucer from garbage

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 tourists’ attractions and not among 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

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

The key person that facilitated communication was our youngest activist 19-year-old Mina Popova, a participant of 2 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 raises the public awareness of environmental issues by volunteering with local museums and environmental NGOs.

Mina Popova 25th Pomorie Lake Brigade
Exploring the Brigade from different sides: Mina Popova balances PR & work

Another important activist that 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.

Alexander Popov 25th Pomorie Lake Brigade

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 (it’s a short video from the future film). They filmed us from the air, land, and water. In turn, we were filming them and taking 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).

Some of us managed to combine hard work and spa treatment. Our French volunteer Lucien spiced up our routine with music and therapeutic mud. He always brought loudspeakers and a bucket of mud offering everyone to follow his suit and cover oneself with mud. In several minutes this followed by bathing. 

Our youngest volunteers (7 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 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 a bird therapy next year.

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

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